Philip Ball, Interview's sneak peek

By Nota Tsekoura, on 27th Jul, 2013 13:11

Philip Ball, science writer

The interview    

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  Nota Tsekoura   In some of your texts and lectures you have referred to terms like social physics or economical physics. Is evident that architecture of today seeks answers to complex realities by flirting with other disciplines, entering unfamiliar territories. An attitude or tendency that seems popular in our time, not only in architecture but in other fields as well. This kind of interaction between fields of practice imply a change of mentality? What is your speculation on the change of the educational system according to the above?

 Philip Ball  Well I think the education system is miles behind all this kind of change. Something I hear lots of people complaining about. It seems clear that there are these strong interactions between different traditions or disciplines that in some way raise the whole question of their validity. The traditional `disciplines are meaningful, not helpful any more? But I think the education, as far as I can see it, in the UK is still stuck in the old disciplinary way of thinking. I suppose, most fundamentally, that you still have some early stage in your education even if it's not as explicit as to choose between humanities and sciences and I think that's a big mistake and it's not very sustainable anymore. So I'm not very optimistic about education keeping up with the way things are changing. But I think, nevertheless, there are some people who are starting to recognize a certain way to bring that change will have to involve a wider way of thinking about what times is and how to interact with society, and how to interact with the industry, and other technological expressions of it. Again, it's not clear what's going to come out of that, but I take a bit of reassurance from seeing that there are people who seem to be recognizing that this has to happen, and can' t have this disappearing. Stop getting people in the same room and talking the same language. In sciences you can see it happening in all sorts of ways. I think it's becoming clear just as an example, that we're not going to understand how the human body works by all becoming geneticists and continuing to decode genes and so on, because there's actually a language, a logic of how that happens, that you can sort sense, but isn't what we thought it was,and isn't going to be understood by classical genetics but you need other approaches. Perhaps engineering approaches. And in some ways, literally, the engineers are becoming interested in engineering biology as a way of finding out how things work and looking at it from the point of view of connecting functional modules together, which is not a vocabulary that genetics really has. And I think there are other areas. The interactions between the social sciences and the so called hard sciences are going further than just drawing analogies and actually having the two groups speak to each other and I think that's a positive thing too. People are talking about understanding finance, banking,using mottoes from ecology, and I think that makes a lot of sense. So I think in academia there are some sciences where this is changing, but it's going to take a long while before it filters down to the way students and children are trained and educated.

 NT  We are now experiencing a new way of understanding society, through data. The word "smart" suddenly seems to appear in many different fields, we hear : "smart city" or "smart object". In an article of yours, called “smart materials”, you are referring to the attributes of the materials as they are considered in different times in history. It is clear that the main medium of the architect is experiencing a constant change and at the moment the eyes are turned towards flexible and adaptive materials, to be used in scenarios of responsive environments with a feedback on real time. In this occasion an architect never delivers a final project rather than the rules of game and the platform for interaction to take place. In this ¨parental¨ architecture, where an architect never delivers the final project rather stays in touch with it long after its delivery, what is the social role of architecture?

 PB  You probably have better ideas about that than I have. But I'm interested on how you presented that, because it makes me think that this is happening more wildly as well. The old idea of manufacturing is the same as the one about architecture that you talked about. You're asked for a project, you design it, send it off and the transaction is finished. And it's clear in so many different ways that that's no longer how things are happening. It's obviously not how things happen in information technology. You constantly having upgrades. In some sense you will never leave one system and taking on a new one. You're always somehow combining the two, taking what you want from the old one. That's the beauty of that. You don't start from scratch. And I think that's true in all sorts of ways, partly because the whole notion of a life cycle of a product. And any thought is becoming so much more central, one of the keys being sustainability and ecological thinking. In a way that's the only way you can do your sums properly, its to think what happens, the energy, money and human costs of a product over its entire life cycle. That's giving rise to things like the responsibility of the manufacturers to take back electronic devices that become obsolete, and to recycle them or get the valuable stuff out from there. That's something that isn't necessarily just an obligation, a burden that is placed on the manufacturer. Actually it can make economic sense too. Particularly things like rare metals become harder to get from China, it makes a lot of sense to get them back from your devices. And that's something that's happening in industry as well, people in the last two or three decades are starting to think in terms of instead of waste flows, they're thinking "What can we get back from all these flows? They've often got all sorts of heavy metals in them. We don't want them on the environment, but actually they're also valuable in themselves and if we can recycle them. So, I think that it sounds as what you say about architecture is something that's made just more broadly. People are thinking in terms of life cycles and sort of close loops, rather than just a transaction between people. You're thinking how to get it coming around again, how to get the useful things back out and reuse them. I'm sure I thought for a moment that there are all sorts of other circumstances that makes it true. It's interesting to me that architecture is thinking about things that way. It's a kind of service industry, I suppose, rather than a manufacturing industry.

 NT  How would you deal with the imagination of the future?  We architects see ourselves developing projects that are actually the reflection of certain fiction movies created several years or decades ago. We're envisioning a future with a subconscious knowledge arriving from film makers ideas? Does this bring to us a certain idea of things to happen?

 PB  What often you see in movies, literature and so on, is an imagined technology of tomorrow superposed on the social reality of the times. Anything you think of,"Star Trek", whatever... It's still very clear that you're in the 1960's, you just have spaceships so you can go anywhere within them. And that's actually never how it turns out, you have somehow to really try and make predictions you have to do the impossible task of imagining a socially sort of evolved future, which is much harder to do. It's the same way for "Brave New World", which was incredibly, advanced technology, superposed on a Stalinist reality, because it was 1930's. And that's not how things are going to happen. In fact, I think, the crucial thing that was reflected there was the market, was commercialisation  I think that's always been the big challenge of imagining what the future is going to be like. It's not imagining what technologies might be around, that's hard enough, but it's imagining this society that will have a goal to use them.

 NT  One could say that one of the great didactics of nature is the importance of the network, as it could be seen in a close study of the simplest organism even. Earlier the network was used by architecture as an understanding tool of composition of a building's function. Now it tries to link more to the structural approach of a project. The interest then shifts into profiting from biology and the network knowledge to achieve complex systems of communication between ¨metabolisms¨ of build structures and nature's systems, hopping for a dialogue where the evolution of one depends on the feedback of the other. Could this mentality help us create more sustainable environments?

 PB  Well yes, definitely,I'm sure it can. But I think that what's come out of that sort of consideration is just a recognition that once you have a complex system of interdependence, once you have some sort of network, and one thing that causes another and feeds back onto it, you've really got to get away from ideas of linear thinking. It's very easy to persuade ourselves that we have some sort of intuition, that if we do this, that will happen. Very often it's so obvious in molecular biology that you just can't predict that way. What's going to happen if you turn off or turn on this or that gene? You have to have at very least some kind of models of those interactions to figure out what is going to be. But also, at the same time, it doesn't mean that everything is incredibly sensitive to everything else, because actually nothing could stay alive, if that was the case, If we were that sensitive to small revelations. So out of that, somehow, in our biology there's networks and gene interaction that come with some modes of behaviour that are really robust. Incredibly robust to all sorts of insults to it. Drawing any generalisation from that is to understand what it is, and this is one of the key questions for people entrusted in all sorts of complex systems, if their social or biological is where robustness comes from. And how you get that sort of stability from something that is so complex. And at the same time it seems increasingly to be the case, but you never get something that is robust against everything. In some ways, we're not at all, we're incredibly fragile, and the important thing is to understand the distinction, to understand where the vulnerabilities are. That's something that the science of network is really starting to focus on. What characteristics of the network give raise to what vulnerabilities? Because they will be somewhere for just about anything, but they may not be the ones that you'd expect. So those two questions, I think, robustness and vulnerability, are essential to understand any kind of system that works according to a network, with lots of interactions and feedback.

 NT  What about self creating systems? One of the questions that maybe we architects flirt with now, is how to create something that could live alone. A very nice reference is the work of the kinetic artist Theo Jansen. This of course comes from a more artistic point of view, but again, the imagination of the architect gets inspired from examples like the above, thinking on systems that could work similarly and autonomously, possibly able to generate new systems.

 PB  I think probably my answer to that is going to be a bit unsatisfactory, because I think that this is the next question, people haven't really got to it yet, but people are very interested in self organisation  I suspect artists are way ahead in terms of thinking about this things, from the side of your point of view, I think that people has really started to sense that's the next question: of where you get creativity from. Because in a sense, any system that can evolve you could say there's good creative thinking in there to get something new that you wouldn't imagine from the beginning. But I think experience so far with developments with robotic systems that can make themselves, mutate, and so on. You can get new forms out from there that can be quite interesting, but I think they're not that exciting.

It's some other ingredient, and I don't think anyone knows what it is. And it may be connected to what you could look at as a verse of creativity in evolution. We've seen that happen that sometimes and not understood why it is that suddenly you get this explosion of diversity, or suddenly you get some completely new functional capacity evolving from something else entirely. And I think that's a question that really isn't understood yet. And may or may not have anything to do with how creativity appears in society, because it's probably safe now to abandon any romantic idea of that somehow it's just inspiration, you know. There's something there that is feeding into it, obviously, so what is it that makes that real transformation, makes something really new come out. And I think that's really all I can say about that: That's the next big question that people are going to ask, and they're really starting to ask it, but I haven't seen any big ideas about what that ingredient is. But I'm pretty sure that it's not just something that can evolve, it's going to be something more than evolutionary adaptation, what gives rise to it.

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Short part of the interview with Philip Ball taken in 2010 for the Institut for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia IAAC. Full version to be published by IAAC.

Learn more about Philip Ball