Cultural vs. Technical Obsolesence

An interesting article by founder Tom Mallory in the Huffington Post discusses various kinds of “responsive architecture,” “interactive architecture,” and “cybernetic buildings.”  Mallory defines the rapidly growing trend of “interactive architecture” as “the convergence of embedded computation and kinetics in architectural form with the intention to involve human and environmental responses.”   This definition is more technical than it needs to be; to some extent architecture is always interactive.   In his images Mallory does include buildings that react to users and context in various ways, sometimes kinetic, other times more passively, sometimes heavily technical, other times not.

At the end of the article he quotes the Bartlett’s lecturer and founder of Ruairi Glynn, who explains the importance of “Interactive Architecture,” and gives some insight in to it’s future.  Glynn feels technology and kinetic architecture will continue to converge, as the technology gets more powerful and smaller, even invisible.  He writes “The problem is making architects realize that you can do more with intelligent architecture than just control heating, airflow, and security systems.”  Glynn goes on to give a few warnings on possible outcomes:  “Interactive Architecture does one of two things. [1] It either accepts its place in time and serves a function for that period and then either is replaced or it is kept as a historical artifact. [2] Or it is an open system capable of change so as to adapt to the changing role of the fixed architecture it inhabits.”

In this context, he raises an interesting distinction between “technical obsolescence” and “cultural obsolescence” with respect to interactive architecture, though I think it applies to all architecture: “It’s important to recognize however that while technological obsolescence can almost be charted on a graph, the cultural obsolescence of existing and future examples of [interactive] architecture are much harder to predict…”  Technological obsolescence, it seems, is inevitable, and can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty.  All technology WILL become obsolete, sooner rather than later.

Cultural obsolescence is much trickier to predict.  Culture is harder to control.  Some artifacts and fads are very short-lived.  Some cultural trends and styles can die and then come back, either as a consciously “retro” sensibility, or in disguised form as a “new modern.”  Other artifacts and elements of culture persist for irrationally long periods.   These persistent or long-lived cultural products, including much architecture, can maintain a consistent meaning and symbolic value over time, or they can evolve or change over time.

It is this “longevity” of the cultural significance of architecture that seems so important.  Perhaps it is a key element that distinguishes “architecture” from engineering.  Architects, one would hope, are hyper-aware of the cultural significance of their designs.  They seek to establish an identity for their designs within a contemporary cultural discourse, one that presumably is itself a long-standing cultural construction, a discussion of ideas that goes (way) back, but evolves.  Furthermore, it seems architects often try to suggest or intend a specific cultural response, even though it is difficult, even impossible for architects to predict the longer-term reaction and significance of their designs.  What a client likes is not the same as a passer-by’s reaction; what people think today is not the same as they’ll think tomorrow or in 100 years.  It’s in this dialogue that the work of historians, theorists, critics, and architects all overlap.

Mies Barcelona Pavilion (1929); Abraham "Monument to Aviation (1979)

Architecture can be both technology and cultural construction.  But it’s the latter that lasts and ultimately makes architecture so interesting and profound, precisely because it’s not tamed, it changes over time, in unpredictable ways, and sometimes lives forever, even after the physical manifestation has gone.


One response to “Cultural vs. Technical Obsolesence

  1. Joseph Koon

    Interactivity falls into the category of ‘tinkering’. It is difficult to approach because methods to develop interactivity involve programming and mechanics. These techniques are distractions from fully approaching the architectural project. Further, interactivity has more to do what what can be attached to a building than with what the building actually ‘is’.

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