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Published in 2A Magazine Issue #15&16 Autumn 2010 Winter  2011

Negar Kalantar Mehrjardi

Negar Kalantar Mehrjardi is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy degree in architecture and design research from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  She is the editor of architectural science in 2A Magazine.  Kalantar is a member of PARTeE: an interdisciplinary design laboratory  at Virginia Tech under the direction of Dr. Ku.


Negar Kalantar, Jonathan Grinham, Kihong Ku

a2o [ey- too- oh] is a responsive interface designed by PARTeE, an interdisciplinary design laboratory directed by Professor Kihong Ku at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). The lab explores computationally driven physical kinetic systems and components as they relate to building systems, environmental conditioning and social and psychological issues.  a2o is the synthesis of the lab’s research in its first year. The project was commissioned by Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Art’s Experiential Gallery in downtown Blacksburg, Virginia.

a2o was developed as a full-scale prototype designed within Michael Fox’s classification of dynamic kinetic structure.  These systems are understood to be singular systems able to actively influence localized climates within a building system.  In the case of a2o, the design was based on the narrative of a sun-shading interface.  The design focuses on the capacity for realization.  Therefore, a plug and play nodal design was adopted.  A nodal design allowed a2o to have a small profile in elevation as well as a singular physical connection to the system’s framework. The use of a nodal system also shifted the understanding of a2o from an architecture that required a host building to an architectural product that was an expandable piece/part system.  The team envisioned a bottom up design for the physical construction within a top down computational logic.  Each unit contains dedicated sensors (infrared range finder and photocell) and dedicated actuators (linear actuator, RGB LED, and piezo buzzer).  Sensory data collected by each individual unit is relayed to a master controller – in this case an Arduino microprocessor – which controls a pixel of five units. The master controller would then describe an action for the individual units to perform in direct relationship to the sensory data it collected.  If the master controller recognizes a specific set of data – in this case no data – it could then describe a preset task for all of the units within its pixel to perform, producing a top down response. This logic structure, described as cellular automaton, allows for the piece/part system to be expanded infinitely as each pixel within the system becomes a unit within the subsequent pixel.

To understand a2o fully we present a narrative:A field of extended a2o units is arrayed across a building’s southern curtain wall, the morning sun peers around the adjacent building and each unit slowly compresses, blossoming proportionally to the amount of light it senses. The result is an emergent texture driven by the light and shadows of the surrounding environment. As the day continues, the units compress to a fully open state nesting within one another to produce an opaque surface, fully shading the space within.  The building occupants arrive and the façade takes on a new aesthetic – the building becomes a living poché. As the users circulate through the space, their silhouettes are impressed upon the field as fenestrations moving through the facade. The individual units extend out from their contracted state when their localized distance sensor perceives users in the space. The result is an isolated view for the users. As the sun falls, the units return to an extended state, having completed their daily task, but their work is not finished. At night a2o once again seeks out its human counterparts. In this case, however, when a user is present, a2o compresses and illuminates, providing the user with light and privacy. a2o also has a logic of its own. As the day slows a2o recognizes that nightly activities decrease, and it feels bored. In this situation, if a2o has not sensed users in the space for a given period of time, it is capable of displaying a topographic image across its surface, providing a range of information or possibly replaying the more exciting events of the day.


The above and following images produced during the research belong to PARTeE


As architecture seeks out a post-digital ‘ism,’ and realizes the tools that have been developed for architects have allowed its process to become analogous to those of fashion and the media-centric world it resides in, a2o and the work of PARTeE does not seek to answer what architecture is, but rather ask what can it do? The ever-expanding toolkit of off-the-shelf robotics, open source computing, and knowledge communities have lowered the threshold for designers to explore this question. a2o’s development as an advanced working prototype provides a construct in which questions can be asked: Can architecture actively and dynamically change physical environments in real time while becoming a social medium? Can architecture connect the virtual and the physical? Can architecture become an interface toconstruct what once thoughts were disparate ideas?


a2o // time mediator

a2o uses a motivated agent model that allows for time to fold and bend upon itself.  a2o is capable of being self-aware. If it gets bored – if the system has not been actuated within a given time – a2o can react with a preprogrammed surface pattern.  In the future a2o will be able to play back more exciting interactions recorded throughout the day.

a2o // human mediator

a2o allows users to become units able to actively influence their environment within a parametric system. Through the use of localized infrared distance sensors, a2o uses gestural interface to allow for controlled mitigation of solar gains while also producing isolated views and privacy.

a2o // light mediator

a2o uses swarm logic to actively shade space. Through localized photocells, a2o measures the light levels falling on individual units. Throughout the day the units blossom with increased light, increasing their profile in order to reduce solar gains. The result is an ever-changing gradient, which is responsive to adjacencies and time.

a2o // virtual interface

Through a serial connection a2o uses Pachube, a real-time Internet data host, to connect to Second Life. Users can interact with a2o virtually with Avatars or see a2o’s response to real world stimuli within the Second Life environment.  a2o in Second Life asks how will we virtually interact with physical environments in the future?

a2o // material

Kinetic transformation presents many formal opportunities. a2o sought to produce a phenomenological transformation. The use of a plywood shell upon the first reading presents rigidity, yet changes to a soft furniture-like application. When the unit compresses the formal transformation presents the illumination of a fractal ornamentation that can be read as organic and anamorphic. In this way the aggregation of units takes on a formal and material vocabulary that is in constant flux throughout the day.

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