The following is an excerpt from Sean Lally's The Air from Other Planets, A Brief History of Architecture to Come. The book introduces the reader to an architecture produced by designing the energy within our environment (electromagnetic, thermodynamic, acoustic, and chemical)-- an architecture that exchanges walls and shells for a range of material energies that develop its own shapes, aesthetics, organizational systems, and social experiences. Energy becomes its own enterprise for design innovation; it becomes the architecture itself.
One of architecture’s primary acts is to define the spatial boundaries that organize and hold specified activities within them. The behavioral properties of the materials used to make that boundary not only influence the physical characteristics of that space (maximum height, span, aperture sizes), but also determine how the human body perceives and senses those boundary changes (opacity, transparency, acoustics), which then informs the behaviors and movements of the individuals using the space. This definition of boundaries is one that architects have continually tested and subverted as new materials, construction methods, and social trends have emerged over the centuries. It follows that if energy could be controlled and deployed as physical boundaries that define and organize spaces that the human body can detect and recognize, wouldn’t that be architecture? These new building materials would only need to demonstrate that they could absorb the “responsibilities” of boundaries—able to determine spatial hierarchies, provide security, hold aesthetic value, etc.—for them to be called architecture. Current trends just on the periphery of the discipline that could make this a possibility only need to be integrated through the lens of the architect to see their potential.
Architecture is much more than the building of an object on a site: it is a reinvention of the site itself. The microclimates of internal heating and cooling, outdoor shadows and artificial lighting, vegetation, the importation of building materials, and the new activities that will occur there create new places in time on-site. To construct such places, architects often seek to design walls between activities and spaces, as they have done for thousands of years. The image in our mind of such a “building” consists of walls that are used to define a space’s perimeter, standing there to protect what lies on one side of those walls from the climatic and environmental context on the other side.
It is difficult to overstate just how much both the architect and the people who use a building’s spaces rely on walls and surfaces to define what we refer to as architecture. Sketching with lines, making models with blocks, and then realizing those representations with solid masses of steel, stone, wood, and concrete is our fundamental method of operation. Producing representations of walls and surfaces is now assumed to be the defining act of architectural design. These solid masses of materials separate and divide one space from another, absorbing our aesthetic and cultural values in the resultant forms they take. The use of a surface to mediate between existing weather and the activities, people, or objects on the other side can firmly be identified as the longest-running strategy for defining space in architecture—from the caves used by early humans and a civilization’s first primitive huts to the tallest, most recent skyscrapers. Yet today architects often strive to make those very walls thinner and more transparent, so that in the right light and at the right angle, they momentarily disappear from view. This points to an unquestionably strong desire in the profession to remove or move past its reliance on these surfaces. Architects have just been unsure how best to do so, because when this does happen, the strategies in place for how we organize activities and define physical boundaries in an environmental context will be fundamentally rewritten.
Other types of spaces and boundaries exist that are represented not by a single line but instead through gradients of energy intensities nested within their surroundings. These are the particles, waves, and chemical interactions of energy that continually surround us, yet are dismissively lumped together and referred to as “air.” We recognize this type of gradient space in the oasis—a pocket of moisture, vegetation, and vivid colors set against a backdrop of monotone sand—or in the image of thousands of pinwheel galaxies clustered together and juxtaposed against a black background of deep space. These shapes and spaces don’t exist as bounded, walled-off entities, but as localized, concentrated exceptions to the surroundings they nest within. They stand apart and provide a resource of relief or opportunity not available in their immediate context. The boundaries that make these microclimates and ecosystems distinct from their surrounding context and each other are shifting and potentially even invisible to the human eye; they require alternate sensory perceptions to perceive them as they intensify and ebb, seeking equilibrium.
Instead of thinking of architecture as a mass of inert and ossified energy—even stone and steel were not always solid masses—standing as walls in opposition to their surroundings and carving out interior space, why not look to intensify those very energy systems we know are capable of creating microclimates and distinct ecosystems so as to make them architectural materials themselves? This process is more than just replacing one material with another. These intensified pockets of energy will also become new methods for organizing the activities and events of our domestic and public lives, informing social interactions in a manner not seen in the effects exerted today by surface architecture. Such a fundamental shift will question the standards we’ve come to take for granted when qualifying architectural shape, how the human body interacts and identifies with those boundary shapes, and how those variables trickle down to affect our interactions with each other.
Architectural innovation in energy is currently judged by how the architect integrates technological devices that reduce energy consumption after a building or site has already been designed—not by the capacity of energy to produce the design characteristics of a building. Advancements in energy research currently focus on increasing the efficiency of the machinery that consumes energy as a fuel (air-conditioning and heating units)—not on deepening our understanding of energy as possessing a wide range of material properties (electromagnetic forces, thermodynamics, sound waves, and chemical interactions). Harnessing energy will always be a part of the equation, but in the near future it will become a much smaller portion of what determines a project’s viability. The act of energy’s release, how we shape it to create intensified pockets and constellations of space ready for habitation, and the architectural roles we entrust to it as a physical material will move to the foreground. This shift in action will turn energy from a resource into a material, and therefore into architecture—a building block for constructing space and defining organizational systems.
On the one hand, this book argues that the materiality of energy can influence and inform the spaces and shapes of architecture. On the other hand, it realizes that if great strides and investments are going to be made in how energy is harnessed and controlled, they will have to come from enticing the general public through demonstrations of new lifestyles, offering visions of a future that the public would be willing, quite frankly, to covet and to make some sacrifices to obtain. The architectural profession is in the best position to deliver the visions and mock futures needed. In offering up the opportunity to achieve these new environments and lifestyles, architecture can create public demand that will generate the necessary pressure to encourage industry to make the required leaps in technology and innovation. In return, not only will architecture gain a new set of material energies with which to build, but these pressures will impact and re-inform some of our basic assumptions about physical boundaries, spatial organizations, lifestyle, and aesthetics, both for those working within architecture and for the users that engage it. In doing so, we have to be prepared for the realization that this future might not necessarily look like the environment surrounding us today, but could very well be one we can nurture and sustain.
Sean Lally is the founder of WEATHERS / Sean Lally LLC.