Architects and architecture students are inundated today with news about smart materials, but they rarely have the opportunity to work directly with them. Creative experimentation with smart materials, however, is a crucial part of testing their benefits and limitations in architectural applications.
In a design workshop I co-taught recently at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, students had the chance to work directly with smart materials in the creation of responsive design installations. In the class, "Stimulus Package," I co-taught with Martina Decker and Peter Yeadon, AIA, of the New York–based office Decker Yeadon.
As we explained in the class description: "We are at the beginning of a new epoch for which there are few precedents for architects, however it is not unfamiliar territory. The age of electricity, the machine age, the space age, and the information age all produced extraordinary works by artists and designers that lent vision to the problems and promises of new technologies. Encouraged by this tradition of leadership, the intent of this workshop is to conceive how architecture might be transformed by advanced materials that are just emerging in the field."
In the workshop, student teams created four installations. While we intentionally left out any specification of a final application in the studio brief, students were encouraged to strike a balance between rigor and play by demonstrating a precise awareness of the material capabilities and limitations while pursuing open-ended forms of experimentation.
One student team created a responsive wall for light graffiti. The photoluminescent paint-clad wall enabled temporary mark-making with the use of a mobile phone light, allowing the casual cellphone-wielding observer to create luminous messages that lasted for several minutes.
Another team designed a kind of artificial insect made of shape memory alloy clad in gossamer sheets of photoluminescent fabric. When electricity was introduced, the autonomic arthropod slowly raised its wings, gradually lowering them again once the current was removed.
The third team's project consisted of an interactive textile surface. Students coated a vertically hung canvas panel in thermochromic ink, making it a deep black color. They then applied a water-repellent coating to protect the ink. Exhibition visitors could use heated water bottles and spray guns to make the ink disappear and allow light to penetrate the translucent canvas. The fabric would become temporarily luminous while it was wet, producing an effect like Japanese calligraphy in reverse—bright strokes of white marking an otherwise impenetrably dark surface.
The fourth project was an elaborate mechanism intended to emulate the movement of wind-blown prairie grass. Students anchored thin rods of various materials to a shape memory alloy base. Once current was introduced, the shortening muscle wire tugged at the rod bases, causing the synthetic grass to sway as if by an invisible wind.
Although brief, the one-week catalyst workshop reinforced the importance of student experimentation with emerging materials. Functional applicability is always a critical consideration in architectural studio; Stimulus Package, however, proved that students should occasionally be given a chance to explore material possibilities without a rigidly defined end use in mind.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.