Living is a Machine for Architecture
Cyborgs might be the stuff of science fiction horror films, but I for one am looking forward to continued opportunities to augment myself with technology. Body integrated gadgets seem to be cropping up everywhere and in all forms, from wearable bio monitors to solar powered clothing. And body modifications have an impact on architecture because one of our primary design considerations is the human form. The modifications to architecture in turn translate to macro level infrastructure, and ultimately the cities and regions we live in. We have already seen the changes engendered by older technologies such as telephone, television, automobiles, and of course (my favorite) motorcycles.
Machines and how they have influenced architecture can be understood in a myriad of different ways. To le Corbusier, the machine was inspiration, and aspiration. Architecture should be more machine like. Engineered, functional and efficient. Technology should be employed to create new forms. This of course became much of the mantra of the modernists. And from the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the cry has been similar, even if the technology itself has mutated over time. The celebration continued, even after the realization of the horrors of technological wars and evidence of the damage technology could inflict. So we are ever fascinated with technology and it’s possibility, regardless of its horrifying potential for destruction.
Survival Research Labs
Perhaps what makes machines and technology remain so fascinating is their potential for adaptation. Or at least the way in which they make us more adaptable. They exist to provide entry into situations that we could not otherwise avail ourselves. And they often do this through shear force and power. At the same time they are a testimony to what we are capable of as humans. They extend us. They move us beyond our limitations. So as a matter of necessity, to better exist in the world, we shape our machines. And once we have created them, we modify ourselves to adapt to their proliferation, and hence they shape us (to slightly alter Churchill’s quip about architecture). A fantastic example of this process is evidenced in the motorcycle.
The first thing about modern motorcycles is that they’re dangerous and mostly scary. They go incredibly fast, and there isn’t a whole lot between the human operator and the pavement. Which is part of the appeal. It’s essentially sitting on an engine with two wheels. You have a very close connection with that engine, because it’s pure and raw and exposed. You can touch it. It’s not under a hood. It’s under your ass.
At extreme speed, space and time distort. You can move between two points at unnatural pace, and space is perceived in flashes or rather, instantaneously. The unique compression of time and what I would call spatial fabric that is experienced on a motorcycle isn’t available to car drivers. This method of viewing the world results in a uniquely modified perception. Certainly the rate of speed is greater on the average motorcycle than it is in the average car. But it’s more than that. On a motorcycle, you are in the world while moving through it, not inside a car. You can feel the wind in your face and see the road as it passes under your feet. You are not looking through glass, or over a hood.
While writing this, I have tried and tried to understand my own fascination with this particular machine. There are all sorts of parallels in architecture, and in life. From notions of risk taking and pushing personal limitations, to how a city is distorted through rapid travel, and even design principals. But I believe that what is most interesting is that a motorcycle is about as close to a human can come to merging with a machine as you can get: You downshift into the corner and hear the engine jump, the chain tightening and slowing you to the correct speed. One knee turns out, and the other tucks up into the gas tank. As the bike comes down into the turn, the tires grip on contact patches that are just inches wide. You shift your weight and lower your chest, looking up into the turn. You feel the tank against you, hear the engine cranking in your ears. Your arms translate into forks you press into, and the machine turns with you. You see the ground as it closes and your knee touches. You smell the octane as you accelerate into the straightaway. It is a dance. Body parts working with the parts of the machine.
More integration doesn’t necessarily mean the trees and mountain streams will be gone. It means we will be a little closer to our technology, and we will make space for that integration. I know there is a lot of fear out there, fear that technology is driving us away from ‘nature’. But it is an exciting time to be alive. And inventions such as the phone and computer have not replaced personal contact, books, or any other cherished aspect of being human, just augmented it. We may simply be shifting into new beings that embrace technology as a part of their own nature. And it’s happening already. From google glass to Apple watches to chips embedded in our bodies. But the technology doesn’t have to rule us. Rather than fear the use of technology against us, we can co-opt it as our own. And as we take over technology and integrate it into our bodies, our bodies integrate into our surroundings. Architecture becomes part of a fluid landscape, where we are completely joined with our transportation, our cities, our spaces. Where we go from there is limited only by imagination.