Architectures of Interaction, Architectures of Communication

New ways of using space are emerging and moving towards real time management. The architect has perhaps become a super programmer? In this perspective, we can say that the present city is partly an expression of the 20th century urban and technological utopianism.

From: Rossella Maspoli, Franco Torriani

The present essay has been published (in Italian) in the book Maspoli R., Saccomandi M. (eds.), Arte, architettura, paesaggio (Art, architecture, landscape), Florence, Alinea Editrice, 2012,  pp. 96-100.



A pervading technology characterizes increasing public outdoor space in the city. The fiber-optical lines, underneath our streets, and the wireless network technology are reconfiguring our way of life.

New ways of using space are emerging and moving towards real time management. The architect has perhaps become a super programmer? In this perspective, we can say that the present city is partly an expression of the 20th century urban and technological utopianism. We could mention Crompton’s “Computer City” (1964), a metropolis combined with electronic changeability, and Rouillard’s “Plug-in City”, made up of connections to a network. The increasingly hybrid nature of contemporary cities requires a ceaseless rethinking of the paradigms that we use when analysing and designing cities: information data, new media technology, interconnections, cultures, environment, nature, sustainability… The concept of complexity brings to these interrelationships a new global dimension of coherence, in conceptual, instrumental and perspective terms. What is and what will be the role of arts in the data-polis? The possibilities are opened – in the changing relations between cities, public space, technology and creativity – for experimental artistic activities, scientific research and technological development. In the first place, they emerge through modeling, simulation, combinatorial optimization, providing scientific and artistic tools to construct reality both in the world of experience as well as in the conceptual fields.

Some of the concepts of this text have been presented by Franco Torriani in his lecture “Labyrinth of the World”, at the Datapolis Symposium (5th International art | sci | tech | Biennale Prague, April – 15, 2011). Some major drives have been quoted and analysed in the “Anomalie digital_arts”, Interactive Cities, issue – editor Valérie Chatelet, n 6, 2007.



Art technology and the city

In regards to technology and within the framework of a reflection on the town subject, John Dewey was already suggesting in his book Art as Experience (1934) the overcoming of the separation between art and science, between human sciences and technoscience, by means of the aesthetic experience. Against this fracture, which is typical of modern times, Dewey, had combined action and aesthetic perspective, highlighting the need of altering reality: “Men must do something to the things when they wish to discover something; they have to alter the conditions”1).

Nothing more surprising than Dewey’s Experimentalism, i.e. knowing how to consciously live in the present under every circumstance, can be found in Mumford’s analysis2) about art and technology. It’s not a question – for Mumford – of reconciling art with technology, but of defining the terms required by a new art, that can keep into consideration how “the machine’s fruits” form the natural environment. We have already reached such urban space transformation and quite a while ago. It’s then the diversity of the every day global experience that has to urge the individual creativity.

The modern city is a classical network intersection, the place of anthropological mutation, where the artificial becomes nature3), it’s an anti-Renaissance city, where there is no room for contemplating a nature that is continuously modified and integrated by technique.

In the contemporary city, furthermore, the technological penetration reveals a new kind of

“Wireless technology is reconfiguring our life style. The distinction between everyday life, work and leisure has abated through the use of such technology. New ways of using the space are surfacing and are shifting towards real-time handling…”4).

Has the architect maybe become a super-programmer?

From this perspective it can be stated that present cities are partially an expression of 20th century urban and technological utopianism. We could quote, going back almost half a century, Dennis Crompton’s “Computer City” (1964), a “metropolis combined with the electronic mutability”, as a network without structure or architecture. At the beginning of the sixties, Rouillard outlines the “Plug-in City”, made of connections to a network, and along with the first megastructural architects – such as Yona Friedman and the Japanese Metabolists – and with the Anti-Architectural and Situationist utopianism of Constant Nieuwenhuys’ “New Babylon” – he contributes to the genealogy of this encounter between architecture and Information Technology.

Even if it’s not just from today that the social space turns out to be invaded by technology, this invasion has undergone in relatively recent times a destabilizing acceleration. The works which arise from this concurrence of art with technology, beyond the linguistic models, also have a potential influence on the behaviours.

The contemporary city’s ever more hybrid nature, dictates a continuous rethinking of the paradigms we use: data, information, links, connections take over the place of the Cartesian geometry in regards to the city’s spatial representation.

To an ever greater extent – as Manuel Castells suggests – these processes are directly connected with the birth of an integrated international system which is more and more urbanised, but very fragmented: the Network Society which has a global scale extension.

“Mobility, the infrastructure network, and the flows are therefore surfacing as main players of the contemporary architectural and urban planning theory and of the practices…”5) Within the city in transformation, no longer physically delimited in an evident way, one of the many questions is about how the inhabitants are still able to orient themselves. This question is always open and, in perspective, the data streams will be able to provide a continuously updated framework of answers.

Rem Koolhaas, Keller Esterling, Martin Pawley in particular, have brought to the forefront how the infrastructure, the architecture and the landscape have to modulate up to the point of becoming a complex one6). The concept of hybrid city expresses the various cultural influences and the social pluralities that pertain to the “relationship environment”, applied to the complex data-polis relationship and deeply linked to the state of being immersed in a impermanent context. It’s a matter of a “multidimensional” immersion that puts the hybrid town’s problems and effects into relation to the human structures.
Sensitive questions are: “how can the new media technologies be made to cohabit with nature?” And “how to design for the Hybrid cities and for the sustainable life?”7).


To the limits of the urban conception

The technology-media options for the existing cities have to be adaptive in regards to the complexity of a territory’s conditions. We are aware of the high data speed and the low speed of architecture and we must not underestimate the fact we are living in a limited space. “The living world inhabits a constrained space. It undergoes drastic profitability conditions. So far, its survival and its biological impertinence depended on the adaptability which, more and more, shows elasticity limits. There are severe aggressions caused by… the urbanization and the demographic explosion of a dominant species”8).

Therefore, to the limit of the urban idea there is the theme of the uncontrolled demographic overcrowding in the space, from the suburbs to the shanty towns. Which art for the shanty towns, albeit technological? “A shanty town is a condition of uncertain eternity”9) and, if a come-back to the countryside can’t be advanced, the new barbarians, as Rufin called them, live themselves in a “Society of the Spectacle”. The favellado, the inhabitant of the favelas, strictly speaking owns a habitat that, “in circumstances which are rather well defined and that especially depend on the certainty of ownership, within roughly twenty years will turn into an urban quarter”.10)
The favellado, as well as the most wandering of the “inhabitants” that make up the urban population in full demographic explosion, “admires wealth” – as Rufin describes – and, on the other side, some media technologies, such as television, become necessary also in the shanty towns.

If the more and more troublesome relationship between the South and “South of the World”11) will not most likely replace the contrast between East and West, there will be a “culture of the poor” which will be true in Rio as well as in Glasgow12).

Public art must, therefore, measure up with the suburbs’ undifferentiated and global growth and with its housing models.

The first feature of the public space can refer to the metaphor of the void, that is to the acquisition of a spatial consistency and of an identification within a system having boundaries. Fernando Espuelas has highlighted the native frameworks: “The public space is, basically, generated in two ways: one follows a time-related process of accumulation and modification without any clear prefiguration, and one derives from a prior and unitary origin, as a result of a planning will”.13)

To the urban limit, the places, the centres both real and virtual, where the community meets and represents itself , have to be rebuilt. The space takes on a meaning when it’s recognized by a group or a community: the network of present relationships, in the space created by the communications media, generates gathering places, node points, which transform in a founding way how the public space is used and recognized – one can say – even independently from the spatial and physical nature of the place. The very city has never been so far from being a “single culture place”, as rather being the one of the forcedly nomads who meet various cultures.

In this context, art has been devised as a construction of an alternative reality, which represents or simulates something inside the city without room of our times – a chaotic and fluid technocity, ever more incoherent and fragile – or which finds its value in a system of signs. The sign is to be understood here as a sort of primary module which expresses and forms an environment thanks to the preferences of who lives and populates this environment.

But is it still really possible to insist in thinking that the world is, among many other things, a semantic container? The sema, the sign, would seem to founder in a society with an excess of codes.
Art will maybe have to take care of fitting mankind more to the urban environment rather than to some pure and simple buildings. It’s a matter of bionic perspective: adapting to the environment, transmitting some signs, interacting in a given environment… The cultural mutation of the relationship between art and technology, the undermining of the foundations of the visual representation and the complexity that characterises the dimensions of the contemporary relational processes shift the field of the creativity processes.

If one has to reason in a project perspective, about a work and about the relational system that it can set off, it’s not sufficient to limit oneself to the visual aspect of a work of art; in an ethical perspective, of care and respect of the environment, the attitude, while designing, has to be the one of probing the knowledge of the various available sources selecting, each time, the data which is useful and that can be applied for anticipating the project’s scenarios. In this perspective, the creative intervention on the habitat, based on the human sensitivity, has to be put into relation with the “environmental load” it determines.




Art, new technologies and imaginary

During the long time frame that includes the second half of the 19th century, or at least a part of it, and the 20th century, it can be noted how modern art and architecture are pervaded, as Edward Lucie-Smith writes, by a “sentimental approach”. It’s not realistic not coming to terms with the “progress of technology”, variously considered and, how Lucie-Smith recalls, the approach implied, and still implies, “… a re-examination of man’s relationship with the universe”.

Art, by means of virtuality and of networking, acts as an anticipation, as a presentation of taxonomies of the changing of the way of “feeling” a place, of “staying” in a space. Who practices the arts according to definitions that, for convention, in the current language are linked with the media, with the (techno)sciences, with the digital world, produces by working on various reference systems, none of which can any longer be taken to be an absolute reference system. It’s plausible that, in the initial phase, a few decades ago, the amazement and the possibilities that the new media offered (no longer only interpreted as simple tools, but as potential founding linguistic elements) would have sometimes unbalanced the artistic practice towards the self-representation of technology.

From Camus to science fiction and cyberpunk literature, to visual arts — as Roberta Buiani writes — many have put themselves to the test “… in representing the city that has changed…”, but it’s cinema that, on the strength of the innovations in the fields of graphics and special effects, “…shows us a city which is transformed and revolutionised in its style, but which presents, emphasized to the nth degree, some features already existing in our everyday cities…”14)

Essentially, the twentieth century ideology of the avant-gardes has often carried on working focusing on technological innovation. In this scenario, the very habitat tends to be an ecosystem shaped by a mainstream concept of culture, where virtuality, understood not only as an immaterial and communicational space, but also as a project and program operational combination, has produced places that tend to look more and more like the “real world”.

As Kevin Kelly writes, this seeping in of technology into our life is because it ”…has become more similar to us: it has taken on an organic structure”. The web, in fact, ”…behaves more as an organism rather than as a machine…”15). One wonders if the reference paradigm is really the technological one, or if it’s not the not so “hard” and with slower adaptation one of biology. We are still dealing, after all, with nature, however the relationship between organic and inorganic, between organisation and disorganisation has to be understood… The phase is still the one of the run-up of the sciences that model both our environment as well as our imaginary, but in a system of relationships in which the most mutant processing aspects are linked with biotechnologies, genetics, and with info-communication.

Also in the case of works based, as often happens, on interactive connections and behaviours, their questioning function in regards to the realities they help to build and, inevitably, to represent, does not fail. On one side we discover the opportunities and the fears associated with advanced science and technology, on the other the refusal of reality. Roberta Buiani recalls, quoting the English scholar Kevin Robins: “The refusal of the real world and the idealisation of a new virtual world are not a novelty related to the web’s expansion, but they belong to man’s everlasting refusal to measure up to chaos…”.

As the direct confrontation with the chaos-world is inconceivable, for Robins architecture and technology are the way to tackle the interaction with the world, but at a distance, because within the Cartesian outlook which is typical of the Western man, to separation is associated rule. The question, at least from a certain cultural perspective, is about how much creating a work of art will not only implement an environmental interaction, but will also express a “will to rule”. After all, by means of the artistic experience, a sort of symbolic reshuffling of the environment is produced as the artist is the key player of the confrontation between the “real world” and the “virtual world”. Even just for a single moment, he creates an uneven environment, he knowingly forges the existing in order to produce another reality: the work, the urban work, within the town.

In taking part to the organisation of a plan, that is of a complex interdisciplinary layout, the artistic project, in order to be sound, has to be imagined as the opposite of an ornamental exercise and the technologies gradually provide new essential elements to the project’s dialogue16). In this perspective, the topics of extrapolation and hybridization become substantial and connected to science and to the forms of art: “… a certain capability of extracting a known thing from its context and to apply it to another field…”17)

Opportunities open up – within the altering relations between town, public spaces, technologies and creativity – for experimental artistic activities, scientific research and technological progress. First of all, they emerge from modelling, simulation, combinatorial optimization, and allow achieving scientific-artistic tools that can build realities, between the world of experience and the conceptual, logical and imaginary fields.


 Some notes

Laura Capuozzo has contributed to the documentary analysis and to the drawing up of the abstract.
English translation by Julian Delens: Technical translator, Consultant in collaborative shared cross-production, Engineer.


  1. ( Dewey J., Art as Experience, 1934; ried. .Perigee Books / Penguin (July 5, 2005). []
  2. ( Mumford L., Art and Technics, Columbia University Press, 1952. []
  3. ( Ratti C., Berry D., Schmitt G., “Interactive Cities”, in Anomalie digital_arts, essay published by Valérie Chatelet, n 6, 2007. []
  4. ( Ibidem. []
  5. ( Castells M., Cardoso G., The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy, Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations, Washington, 2005. []
  6. ( Graham S., Marvin S., Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, Routledge, London, 2001. []
  7. ( “Adaptation: designing the future city”, event organised by the Dutch Cultural Center, Shanghai, 14th-17th August, 2010. []
  8. ( Bec L., @rt Outsiders 2009. “(In)Habitable? L’art des environnements extrêmes”. Introduction of the Festival @rt Outsiders Catalogue, published by Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP), Paris, 2009. []
  9. ( Jean-Christophe, L’Empire et les Nouveaux Barbares, Paris, 1991, p.76. []
  10. ( Ibidem. []
  11. ( The present economic, financial, social imbalances no longer only concern the differences between the world’s North and South. After all the ratio between “South and South” of the world is increasing – not without positive aspects and often surprisingly scarcely known among the public opinion of some European countries. The emergence of China, India, Brazil and of other countries with more or less emerging economies, means that the axis of the interests, shall be the one of the disparity, not only they shall not be just a matter between North and South, but also they will place themselves more and more South; furthermore, the flow of investments from South towards North, from India towards Europe is growing, to recall a case. A disturbing aspect of this changed order paradoxically lays exactly in the new political and commercial relationships undertaken with the poorest countries of the South of the world, an example is the significant financial commitment lavished in Africa by China. Its growing presence in the African territories seem, in fact, to be directly proportional to its own need of natural resources, increased due to the economic and demographic growth. The great Chinese investments, and not only those, fall within the world’s geopolitical configuration change as, moving the influence areas in favour of some emerging countries, located in Asia, in Latin America – as well as in Russia – are supplanting, or at least weakening, the post-colonial balance mainly centred on the West. Development, cooperation, exploitation, neo-colonialism from possible future empires are ingredients of various kinds, all potentially present: the challenge is important and is already changing the geography. []
  12. ( Lewis O., La famille Sanchez, French transl., Paris, 1993. For Lewis the culture of the poor is the culture of the transferred, destabilised masses… and that live in a dependency situation… Rufin also talks about a cultural archipelagos, a civilisation that “deserves at least as much as the rational, technological and consumer civilization, to be considered as the greatest creation of this century…”. []
  13. ( Espuelas F., El claro en el bosque. Reflexiones sobre el vacio en arquictectura, Fundacion Caja de Arquitectos, Barcelona; 1999; Italian transl.: Il vuoto. Riflessioni sullo spazio in architettura, Marinotti, Milan, 2004, p. 45 []
  14. ( Buiani R., “Città reale/Città virtuale, tra ordine e caos”, in Campane e Suoni, Cagliari, July, 2000 edition. The Paper, unpublished, started off from a conversation between Roberta Buiani e Franco Torriani. Not only we are beyond the very concept of ideal town, thus after the City of the Sun model taken as a metaphor of the town based on an utopia, but beyond the widespread town, immersed in an acentric town that works according to habitat areas. The relationship between sound and habitat, thus well beyond the town, not only reorganises the habitat, but it also affects the relationship between human beings and their things, their spaces, as Elias Canetti, very appropriately quoted by Buiani, writes: “All the distances men create around themselves are dictated by fear”. []
  15. ( Kelly K., New rules for the new economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World, Penguin books (1998), p. 46. []
  16. ( Faure C., Mattei M.G., Torriani F., edited by, ARSLAB. I sensi del virtuale (The senses of virtuality), Fabbri, Milan 1995. []
  17. ( Bec L., cit. []

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