By: Enzo Marfella
The notion of change and mobility in architecture has long fascinated designers. It’s a concept called Kinetic Architecture, and throughout history, the idea of structures that can respond to the environment or be programmed to do so has been explored exhaustively by Modernist architects. Many have employed the impression of motion in their work, without the structures themselves being able to move in any literal sense. With that in mind, we have to wonder if static structures are able to imply motion and still retain authenticity.
This is not a new debate. If one were to look back at the beginnings of the Humanist tradition of Western Civilization, it would be clear that humans have long believed mankind has dominion over the environment. It’s our land on which to build, and architecture is the physical manifestation of us imposing our will over the natural world. Kinetic architecture, then, only makes sense as the next logical step in mankind’s quest for total control over its environment.
Fast-forward to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, once science was armed with Newtonian physics and Joules’ thermodynamics, to see the birth of modern engineering and the wholesale manipulation of the natural world. Canal works, from Erie to Panama, used drawbridges, trestles, dams and flood control projects to herald modern man’s technological evolution. These feats of science and design set the table for the emergence of comparable developments in more traditional architecture from Modernist designers.
A key point about Modernists is that they believe that space is not fixed. It can be manipulated and changed, that it is continually in flux. Possibly the most notable Modernist was Frank Lloyd Wright. Few other designers shared his sense of the necessity of architecture to respond to its context. His work exhibited that sense immediately upon viewing it: the blurring of the distinctions between interior and exterior space, the mating of building to site, and the subtle integration of passive and active environmental control systems. Wright’s compulsion was to build, not in opposition to nature, but in harmony with it.
Still, no matter how organically conceived, Wright’s architecture could not evolve or respond in any literal sense. However, recent advances in technology and computing now make kinetic architecture possible. Over the past thirty years, several examples have been constructed, from James Sterling’s Olivetti Training Center, with its occupant-regulated, sliding balcony roofs, to the proposed renovation for the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, which features a movable steel plate, anchored to the building’s facade by cable stays, which announces the rotating nature of exhibitions within.
In the future, mechanically articulated building elements will play an increasingly integral role in adapting architecture to its environment. Building facades will respond to the movement of the sun with automated precision, interior environments will reconfigure their proportion and disposition in response to changing needs; the very fabric of architecture, once static and immobile, will become a transformative mechanism of responsive adaptation. As the environment changes, so too does architecture.