Reknown for its integration of Arts, Science and Technology, the STAR department at the University of Plymouth have made the most of a new Fielden Clegg Bradley building. By capturing its social, communications and environmental data the team are using a new form of 'software for buildings', that allows them to turn data into images, animations and experiences to allow inhabitants to 'see' what the building is doing.

by Chris Speed.


Plymouth, as with so many of Britain’s regional centres it is currently undergoing a cultural makeover as part of attempts to refocus the city as a happening, future oriented place to come, live and do business in. Inevitably much of this is focused on the incipient new media activity, which bubbles just under the surface of the city’s cultural activity. And much, perhaps inevitably derives from one of the hubs of that activity, the University of Plymouth’s School of Computing.

Hidden in its warren of departmental activities, is STAR, otherwise known in the curriculum brochures as the Science, Technology and Arts Research group. STAR’s group of computer science and interactive media researchers have for the last two years run an interesting annual exhibition, Without Walls. This has explored the relation between only too existent physical and the emergent digital architecture fields, attempting to nurture a dialogue between the two. In the last two years the University commissioned a series of three new buildings to re-house various expanded departments on the University’s increasingly cramped Portland Square site. The square, such as it is, fronts onto a main road which leads between Plymouth’s concrete city centre and one of its immediate inner city suburbs beginning only yards further up the hill. If one wanted to draw the attention of the many passers-by these buildings would be a good opportunity. STAR, who have for a number of years been researching the prospective futuristic interfaces between buildings, their users and the passing public saw their chance. As the building plans developed they developed Cybrid, a groundbreaking synergy between the built environment and a whole new range of uses in the building for new media, particularly sensor, tracking and particularly an innovative take on how Building Maintenance Systems technology, might be used for artistic, indeed Information art ends.

The project centres upon one of these three new University of Plymouth buildings, giant steel and glass box behemoths, characteristic of the many contemporary large scale buildings that are too complex to understand just by looking at them. Defined by its social function for a huge variety of different people, wired completely to allow itself to control its own environmental conditions, and providing a digital and actual space for people to work in, the building can be ‘alive’ and present in many different ways. However like most digital systems, these dynamics which make the architecture so versatile and meaningful for so many different people are hidden, and the building will continue to look same day in and day out.

Portland Square Building at the University of Plymouth, Designed by Fielden, Clegg, Bradley architects.

Cybrid was thus born out of the desire to explore and illustrate the complexity that defines such a contemporary building. By tapping into the data networks that are hidden throughout the building, the Cybrid becomes a resource for scientists, engineers, researchers and artists to begin representing some of the hidden activity that defines the buildings use. From watching the movement of people, to tracking their use of the internet and even monitoring the environmental conditions of the building, new representations of this activity will emerge, perhaps as sound through speakers, as images through data projections or as a stream of information to a website, Cybrid is intended to visualise the many images that one building can be known as, but is traditionally understood as one.

The actual building where STAR’s experiment is being hatched, is designed by the well-respected environmental architectural practice, Fielden Clegg Bradley. The three office blocks are connected by an open corridor linking three atria to form a fluid, and multi level environment that is well lit, and well designed. The building is host to a number of ‘cutting edge’ schools and departments, most notably the Peninsula Medical School, which works from an interdisciplinary medicine teaching philosophy embracing many other departments activities; neuroscience, engineering, and interactive media. If it is simple enough to ‘see’ the building from the outside and begin to find a relationship with it through a staff or student disposition; it doesn’t mean that it is easy to get your head around the nature of building that serves so many different people in so many different ways.

In dealing with the complexity of ‘reading’ such a building you need to begin understanding what else constitutes the building other than the steel and glass that holds it up. STAR as well as another group from the Centre for Neural and Adaptive Systems were interested in this very question, and set about determining what the building was. They quickly revealed a host of services that were not only just beneath the surface of the plaster, but that are also clearly the sort of processes that makes the building actually useful and habitable to its users. In wanting to develop alternative understandings for the building, the STAR team has set out to use these discreet and ubiquitous technologies to reveal more about what the building was doing. They realised that by taking the data directly from its source in the building, such as the Building Management System, it could be turned into information that would reveal an alternative interpretation of what the building looked like. The guiding principle idea behind wanting to model the systems of this building was to enhance our relationship with it, to make more use of its job as host for our activities and social interactions. Otherwise the building will remain dumb, simply sheltering us from the rain.

Whilst the building housing Cybrid was going up, STAR have been negotiating the technical frameworks so as to source the data from which new software can generate these new representations of the building and its activities. So the building management system (BMS), the very system that keeps the building breathing, monitors and manages its temperature, its use of water and lighting conditions can all be the material palette for an interested Information artist. In fact the BMS as a collection of data, offers a far more accurate idea of what the building looks like, offering a window on its alternating lighting, heating and water use during the course of each twenty four hours. Since Cybrid is wired to the computer network, STAR will be able to look at information regarding the nature of network traffic, and anticipate monitoring its use, possibly where people are going on the web, and how the networks bandwidth is affected. There are also video and other vsion systems located close to the ceilings in the buildings main circulation spaces, allowing further monitoring of the movement of people. Working with the Neural and Adaptive research group, STAR hope to use software techniques, building data pictures about the passage and density of people within the real spaces. There will also be microphones to sample and record audio from the building and its inhabitants, which can in turn be played back through the many speakers located throughout the spaces. Simple sensing devices located in the top of the lift shafts, will reveal the nature of the elevators traffic, where it goes, how often, and how quickly. This will add to the thorough picture of movement through the building.

The Cybrid Waterfall that changes its size and volume based on the amount of water the building is using.

All these data resources will be pooled in the Core of the Cybrid, which will form the basis of a multi-layered source of data and information, which can be transformed into either in-house projects or external commissions. STAR envisage their in-house projects will include audio based projects, exploiting sound technologies to allow dynamic data passed to the Core to be represented through a range of sonic/audio broadcast technologies; Visual, spatial or conceptual projects - such as a series of installation projects being envisaged that tap the Core for data that can transform information to enable specific visual, telematic or physical manifestations of data. Lastly the plan is that the schools research work on robotics and intelligent systems research is to be extended. Externally, Cybrid is to be a space for commissions. There is a wide range of potential artists and researchers to involve in translating Core data so Cybrid presents itself as an extraordinary canvas for very wide range of media artists involved across the range of sound, software, image, time based media and engineering. All of whom may have entirely different conceptions of what the building is, and are able to sift, gather and manipulate the data to develop new and unusual models for digital arts practice.

One architect and writer who is acutely aware of the transformation that buildings are undergoing in a digital age is Peter Anders. Anders, part of the STAR team and author of ‘Envisioning Cyberspace’ presents a useful theoretical model for understanding the increasingly flexible model of a building that we need to understand as we begin interacting with buildings beyond that of simply opening doors and turning lights on. It was Anders who coined the Cybrid phrase, which as he writes is “a link on the continuum between concrete objects and abstract data. The line that separates data from objects represents a continuum rather than a division. Today there are situations where data and concrete objects work together to create new spatial entities, herein called “cybrids.” A cybrid is a hybrid of physical and electronic spaces.” (Anders, 2001). In explaining a Cybrid further Anders reminds us of our interactions with systems such as searching a buildings library of books. In doing so we are negotiating with two spaces; one a computer database, and two the collection of books on the shelves in a series of rooms. In this way the experience of a building is a complement of the digital and the actual or a Cybrid.

For the STAR team, the need to ‘see’ a different image for a building is born out of a need to recognise the multiple points of view that the people who know of the building may have. If traditional media technologies such as television and newspapers provide digested and edited forms of multiple perspectives, they do so from a particular perspective, one that many of us are rarely able to adopt. Purchased and consumed in hard un-editable form, the newspaper and television message both limited, and becomes yesterday’s news very quickly. Digital technologies offer softer alternatives, through monitoring systems in real time and can offer interaction with messages, they are much more adaptable and versatile. Often less determined, they are far more sensitive to acknowledging the interests and differences inherent in the audience, since any data that is born out of a monitoring system embodies the audience as the source of the data which is then re-interpreted and distributed. The difference between what we have been used to receiving in the form of broadcast media and new forms of network media is enormous, and many people are still unaware of the role that new forms of news material may take. Turning data into information is nothing new for computer scientists or graphic designers. Much of what we experience as images to support statistics on the television has involved some data visualisation. Dynamic data visualisation is more interesting, but turning live from data into information and then into knowledge is a critical part of STAR’s Cybrid project. This emergent terrain, where developing understanding of how an experience of a space affects and informs peoples, needs to be cultivated. Frank Zappa once sang that data is not information, information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. Similarly Nathan Shedroff (Jacobson, 1999) has developed an ‘Understanding Spectrum’ for this continuum between data, through information and knowledge, to wisdom. Within the spectrum he also finds that the spheres of context alter along the line; information being a non-participatory context, knowledge a local space with a mixture of active and inactive participation, and finally wisdom which operates within a personal and wholly participatory context.

If Cybrid is to be a success the closer we can get to wisdom the better, although as Shedroff3 says; “We [designers] cannot create wisdom as we can data and information, and we cannot share it with others as we can knowledge. We can only create experiences and describe processes that offer our audiences opportunities to find wisdom. Ultimately, wisdom is an understanding that must be gained by the individual.”

One form of knowledge that the experience of architecture evokes is a social one; the influence of others activities upon our own. Social Navigation, which can be described as the study of social groups and their influence upon their own environments, provides examples of the transformation of environments due to social movements. We all actually extremely good at social navigation, probably more so than we think; shopping. Our navigations and decisions about where to shop, drink and eat are often determined socially as we observe people around us shopping. How busy a place is, how it looks, the way people dress, and how we associate with their choices all affects where we choose to go and where to shop. So it is possible to begin imaging that if a building were presented in a far more complex manner we could begin to find more ways of relating to it. And this is exactly how STAR is thinking, as far as a specific use of Cybrid.

SlothBots; large architectural scale robots that move at imperceptable rates according to changes in their environment.

The opportunities presented by the Cybrid project to explore, extinguish, dissolve and develop contemporary understandings for how we read and interact with architecture are apparent since the least that the team is doing is making the invisible visible. Certainly as the networked world encourages us to recognise distributed understandings, what the Cybrid should reveal is the complexity of a contemporary building, and its existence defined by its use, its people and its environmental conditions.

Anders, P (2001) Extending Architecture, featured in Grinsted, G & Speed, C. (Eds.) (2001). V01D. Plymouth, UK: The Institute of Digital Art and Technology.
Jacobson, R. (Ed.) (1999). Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.



Contents . Project Research . Fourthdoor Review . Unstructured1 . Unstructured2 . Unstructured3