Interactions with Proactive Architectural Spaces: The Muscle Projects PDF PDF

May 31st, 2008

by Kas Oosterhuis and Nimish Biloria

ONL Trans-Ports Proactive Building concept

Modernist architecture, from Le Corbusier to Herzog de Meuron, is based on an outdated aesthetic, one that leans heavily on that of mass-production. In architecture, however, we can no longer celebrate the beauty of repetition of similar elements. Although critics may think differently, even current de-constructivists, like Morphosis and Gehry, base their aesthetic essentially on ideas of mass-production: they start from series of mass-produced components, for which they subsequently make many exceptions. They create holes in volumes, they cut off, they chamfer and twist, they superimpose, they collage: they build in conflicts as they try to individualize components.

At ONL, an architectural design firm in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and the Hyperbody Research Group at the TU Delft in The Netherlands, we have been designing an entirely new aesthetic, one based on the principles of customization. Mass customization of buildings means that all produced building components have a unique identity, are individuals that can be addressed independently. Each building component is different, and fits only in one place. The structure that is built becomes a giant three-dimensional puzzle, where each piece fits exactly in one location, and the unique ID of each component is comparable to an IP address of a computer linked to the Internet. This new generation of Pro-active Architecture (ProA) is based on customization that respects the individuality of each component, building up a completely new aesthetic. ProA buildings are responsive to the individuals that live inside them, and to their environment. In the ProA concept, buildings are organic, ever-changing vehicles for processing and displaying information. They exhibit independent real-time behaviors, like adjustments in shape in response to changing environmental circumstances such as wind direction. At Hyperbody, we have instigated a series of interactive prototypes to study the design of such buildings. For the NSA exhibition in Centre Pompidou in 2003, invited by the curators Frédérique Migayrou and Zeynep Mennan, we built a first installation, NSA Muscle. NSA Muscle is a pro-active inflated space, its surface being populated with a mesh of 72 muscles – produced by Festo – and all addressed individually. In the installation, the muscles co-operated as a swarm of muscular actuators, so as to behave in real time. The NSA Muscle danced, hopped, twisted, contracted and responded with subtle movements to sensor input coming from visitors touching sweet spots on the nodes of the muscular mesh. The paradigm of ProA was born officially, appearing on the cover of the French daily newspaper Libération.


Our first truly interactive environment was the Saltwaterpavilion, realized in 1997. A weather station positioned at the North Sea sent data to a computer running Max/MSP, which informed a mixing table to produce a soothing massage of light and sound that refreshed 20 seconds per minute. The public could interact with this dynamic environment using a sensorboard, pushing and pulling lights and sound towards both extremes of the interior space (see Figure 1). Interactivity and architecture were designed from scratch with similar high budgets and at the same scale. Interactivity formed an integral part of the architecture for the first time in the history of architecture. Imagine we would now produce a swarm of such Waterpavilions, all placed on different locations around the globe, all exchanging information with each other, with their local environment, their local users, and with their global directives. What would these ProA buildings tell each other, what sort of information would they exchange?

Figure 1: Sensorboard in Saltwaterpavilion.

Figure 2. Hylite panels actuated by embedded fluidic Festo Muscles.

The Muscle Projects

With the Muscle projects, our first prototypes of ProA, we tried to emphasize the real-time actuated spatial response that a building or architectural space might provide. The prototypes were conceived of as a collection of three-dimensional spatial strips, programmed to respond to its occupants through proximity and touch sensors, processors and actuating fluidic muscles made by Festo (see Figure 2). Each strip is made out of Hylite panels, a sandwich material with combined properties of aluminum and plastic that is bendable. Two fluidic muscles produce compression power that transforms the otherwise hard-edged strip into soft luxuriant undulations.

In the Muscle project, the cumulative coupling of basic units gives rise to three distinct elements: a responsive floor, a ceiling and walls joined together in a closed three-dimensional loop. These elements are linked in space in a highly interdependent manner, constantly exchanging information (such as air pressure variations), yet, behaving as a collective whole to attain certain spatial reconfigurations.

Figure 3. Muscle Tower 1.

The Muscle Tower 1
The Muscle Tower is a working prototype [model scale 1: 20] for a building’s structure which responds to external stimuli [the weather] and internal conditions [the users] (Figure 3). This programmable structure is seen as a process relating to other running processes [people, the environment] that displays real time behavior. It was first shown at the Aandrijftechniek’ exhibition, part of the ‘Industrial Week’ (a meeting point for Dutch industry), at the Jaarbeurs Utrecht. This exhibition informed visitors about many of the latest innovations, developments and bright ideas in the world of Power Transmission, Factory Automation & Motion Control in one brain-inspiring visit. Some possible practical applications of a real-time adaptive structure like the Muscle Tower include:
• Adaptive Façade: adapting to changing external environmental conditions and internal usage patterns.
• Responsive Roof: responding to changes in solar radiation.
• Pro-active Space: the building morphology augments itself in real time to suggest and provoke the possibilities of engaging with a space.
• Balancing Structure, dynamically resisting to external forces, making a skyscraper stand perfectly upright when enduring strong winds.

Figure 4. The Muscle Tower 2.

The Muscle Tower 2
The second Muscle Tower prototype was an interactive advertising billboard structure with built-in behaviors for reacting to its environment, through bending and rotation of its elements. The tower consists of a network of aluminum rods, connected flexibly to each other and to pneumatic muscles by means of hollow iron spherical nodes (see Figure 4). Each spherical node attaches to one end of a fluidic muscle, and two aluminum rods that create 3D framed sections (of variable dimensions), which are stacked upon each other to build up the entire tower. This positioning of the muscles allows the 3D frame to be bent, twisted and deformed while maintaining a sense of balance of the entire tower, thus avoiding it from toppling over. A cumulative stacking and attaching of subsequent frames allows for a higher degree of movement. The tower is programmed using Virtools, which obtains data about the presence of people by means of a sensing field with motion sensors laid out in the periphery of the tower (see sidebar). The tower can elegantly bend, twist and turn towards the sensed spatial coordinates of people around it, in order to attract attention to an advertisement displayed on the tower’s surface

Figure 5. The Muscle Body

The Muscle Body
The Muscle Body is a fully kinetic and interactive prototype of an interior space. The project is an architectural body constituting a continuous Lycra skin that makes no categorical distinctions between floor, wall, ceiling or doors (see Figure 5). This continuous skin is structurally supported by a spiraling three dimensional PVC tube framework, thus endowing it with flexibility and stiffness. A total of 26 Festo muscles are intergraded into this spiraling structure to control the physical movement. Using these materials, the Muscle Body can change its shape, its degrees of transparency, and the sound that it generates in real-time, as it interacts with people who enter it. The translucency of its Lycra fabric varies according to the degree of stretching induced by this shape augmentation. The thin strips of light mounted between the tubing and the skin, in combination with the altering translucency of the fabric results in an intriguing play of light upon activation. There are also a number of speakers integrated into the skin that generate sound from several sound samples combined and transformed according to the actions, proximity and movement of the people inside the Muscle Body.

Figure 6. A Bamboostic forest

The Bamboostic
The Bamboostic installation is another example of an interactive architectural space (Figure 6). It operates as an interactive forest that could be placed in a public space like a square, and is composed of a series of mechanical trees. These trees are the result of coupling three pneumatic muscles utilized for actuation, with a central mast of bamboo specifically chosen for its flexibility. Steel strings, interconnected with three pneumatic muscles on the central bamboo post were woven through clamps and connected to the rigid base. Actuation of each individual muscle produced the conceptualized movement of the bamboo in pre-defined directions. After successfully building and testing one prototype, a series of trees was created and grouped together to create an organized forest of kinetic bamboo structures. The kinetic behaviour is regulated in accordance with the proximity of people near each individual bamboo structure. Proximity is tracked in real-time via a tracking system developed at Hyperbody using Virtools. The tree nearest to a tracked individual bends towards him or her, and its movement is replicated in a decreasing extent by surrounding trees. This produces a rather natural landscape feel, via a set of mechanised entities.

Figure 7. The Muscle Space

The Muscle Space
Figure 7 shows the Muscle Space project, an interactive passage space that interacts with passers-by in a proactive manner. The structural profile chosen for the Muscle Space consists of double-curved surfaces that are actuated by pneumatic muscles woven into a grid of PVC tubes. The kinetic behaviour displayed by this dynamic structure is a complex combination of scissoring, folding, bending and falling movements. The floor surface of this interactive passage has embedded pressure sensors that register the movement of people passing by. These movement patterns are communicated to a set of behavioural algorithms which, in turn, coordinate the actuation of pneumatic muscles and ambient sound along the length of the passage. Passersby thus become passengers within an architectural body that is communicative, and alive.

Figure 8. Muscle Façades

The Muscle Façade
Finally, by introducing interactivity, we wanted to break the stereotype of the facade of a building as a barrier separating the interior from the external environment. The Muscle Façade (see Figure 8 ) moves and changes its visual appearance in accordance with fluctuating contextual conditions, such as the weather. The façade registers contextual information through a multitude of sensors and connectivity to global media (weather forecasts, etc.). This incoming data is processed by Virtools, and the Muscle Façade manifests its response by changing its own shape, the colour of images projected on its surface, and the augmentation with sound.

Through the above examples and experimentation, the potential importance of interactivity through organic reshaping of buildings as computers, and as computer displays, has become apparent. We realized that if we develop our buildings as flexible networked information processors, they become vehicles that can receive and transmit information to and from each other. Just like cars on the highway form a population of interacting moving bodies, just like houses in the city form populations, these interactive architectural bodies will form a network of live entities. All would feed on data produced by other buildings and elements, all would behave in real-time, all would tell the others what they did, and all would become a self-learning entity. Self-learning capacity will only arise if the architectural body will be part of a swarm, if it can communicate with peers. Then they may start building up a body of knowledge, perhaps not unlike its human inhabitants. Our minds are completely helpless and uninformed if we do not communicate with peers. Our body of knowledge does not reside in any one brain, but is embedded and distributed across a network of brains and bodies. It will be no different with these architectural bodies, who’s brains will feed on meaningful data from the Internet and other wirelessly transmitted semantic signals beyond the electricity used for metabolic operation.

Overview of Actuated Building Technologies


Pneumatic Entities: Fluidic Muscle Type MAS (provided by Festo): A flexible tube with reinforcing fibres in the form of a lattice structure for up to 10x higher initial force compared to a cylinder of identical diameter. The muscles tend to contract 20 percent of their initial length with the induction of air pressure, hence making it act as an actuating device to alter the node positions of the prototype.
Properties: Diameters 10, 20 and 40 mm, rating length 30 … 9,000 mm, no stick-slip effect, low weight, hermetically sealed. Application: Actuating devices connecting the Hylite plates into a singular networked whole.

The Black Box (by ONL and HRG with Festo air valves and switching components): A hard-edged box housing the switching mechanisms: I/O boards connected to the 72 valves controlling the air pressure lock of the Fluidic muscles. The box has provisions to attach the compressed air intake pipes through distribution channels; houses the CPU and power back up mechanisms.
Application: Used as a secure container, housing the brain of the installation through which the Fluidic Muscles are instructed to attain the contraction or relaxation modes.

Flexible Skins:
Hylite panels: Hylite is a sandwich sheet comprising two thin aluminium layers with a plastic core in between. It was developed for car body parts. It integrates high flexural stiffness and extreme lightness. Compared to steel sheet with the same flexural stiffness (0.74 mm) and aluminium (1.0 mm), Hylite is 65% and approximately 30% lighter respectively. These results have been obtained by combining the best properties of aluminium and plastic in a single material. The Hylite panels were specifically selected for the skin of the prototype due to its flexibility criterion and the ease involved in its handling.
Lycra based fabric: Lycra, a stretchable fabric normally used for sports clothing. The translucency of the fabric varies according to the degree of stretching.
Application: Spatial envelope, interactive furniture surface, projection surface

Control System: Sensing devices used to enrich the activity recognition criterion of the prototype. The selection of the sensors, involved two basic distinctions in the manner in which we wanted data to be sensed: firstly, the global level – dealing with proximity of users with respect to the prototype and secondly, the local level – dealing with finer adjustments made to the panels by means of individual inputs through touch sensors, hence providing partial control by the user.

Sensors: Proximity sensors for sensing the distance of the occupant from the installation and Touch sensors for sensing the amount of pressure exerted upon a surface

Software: Virtools Dev 3.0, software is used for developing an inherent connectivity between the sensed data and the expected behaviour output from the prototype (by means of programming output rules for the system). The software is used as the main computation tool which receives inputs from the MIDI device (sensed data), processes data in accordance with the scripted behaviours programmed into it and sends output digital signals via PCI cards device, which are directly linked with actuating mechanisms.
The graphical scripts are systematically composed to communicate dynamic data, related with proximity of users (through sensors) to a set of arrays built into the software file, which act as the interface between the real and the virtual worlds. These arrays are constantly updated via the ‘sensor reading script’ developed at the HRG, which primarily utilize MIDI inputs for this purpose. Apart from this script, a parallel operation which concerns the status of each system unit (a component attached with the muscle) is tracked constantly in real time by means of updating the corresponding valve status linked with the pistons. These two operations formulate the so-called first level operations of the scripts, which are aimed at capturing the context within which the prototype is embedded. The second level involves a ‘data processing’ script to check in parallel with the previously acquired information: the Status and the Sensor reading scripts, hence abstracting the change in context by means of reading the updated array and the current position status of each system unit. This information is gathered by means of compiling it in the form of genotypic numeric strings, which are forwarded to the Smart lab PCI cards.

The PCI cards, as mentioned earlier, further relate these numeric strings in correspondence with the airlock valves status and runs re-checks for any updated arrays in parallel to create a phenotype string, which involves a long numeric string equivalent to the number of pneumatic muscles in the prototype and represents the new on, off status commands by means of numeric 1 and 2 codes. This processed data directly communicates with the airlock valves and results in the opening/closing of valves corresponding with the numeric data delivered to the black box, hence actuating specific sets of pneumatic muscles to produce an appropriate system response.

Prof. Kas Oosterhuis studied architecture at the Delft Technical University. In 1987-1988 he taught as Unit Master at the AA in London and worked / lived one year in the former studio of Theo van Doesburg in Paris together with visual artist Ilona Lénárd. Their design studio is in 2004 renamed into ONL [Oosterhuis_Lénárd]. From 2000 Oosterhuis is appointed professor digital design methods at the Delft Technical University and has been a Member of the Board of Museum Witte De With in Rotterdam. Kas Oosterhuis is Director of Hyperbody, the kowledge center for Nonstandard and Interactive Architecture at the TU Delft. Kas Oosterhuis is Director of the Protospace Laboratory in the iWEB pavilion, located in front of the Faculty of Architecture. Kas Oosterhuis has initiated two GSM conferences on the subjects multiplayer game design, file to factory design and build methods and open source communication in the evolutionary development of the 3D reference model. Award winning building designs include the Saltwaterpavilion at Neeltje Jans (Gold Award 1997 for innovative recreational projects, Zeeuwse Architectuurprijs 1998, nomination Mies van der Rohe Award 1999), the Garbagetransferstation Elhorst/Vloedbelt in Zenderen (Business Week / Architectural Record Award 1998, OCE-BNA Award for Industrial Architecture 1996, Aluminium Design Award 1997) and the Hessing Cockpit in Acoustic Barrier in Utrecht (National Steel Award 2006, Glass Award 2006, Dutch Design Award for Public Space 2006, nomination Mies van der Rohe Award 2007).

Dr. Nimish Biloria is an Architect and an Assistant Professor at Hyperbody, TU Delft, The Netherlands. After being involved with investigating the inter-relation of Media and Architecture throughout his formative educational years at CEPT, Ahmedabad, India, he furthered his interests in the inter-disciplinary realm at the Architectural Association, London, where he specialized in the field of Emergent Technologies and Design. He further attained a Doctorate at the TU Delft, Netherlands, with a focus on developing real time responsive/adaptive corporate office environments. He has been associated with Hyperbody, TU Delft, The Netherlands since the past four years and continues experimenting with the idea of formulating intelligence aided relational networks for the generation of performative morphologies.

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