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Re-thinking metaphor,
experience and aesthetic


Joanna Wlaszyn

Ecole Nationale Superieure dArchitecture Paris-Malaquais (ENSAPM),

Paris, France
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to explore current questions about metaphor, experience and
aesthetic awareness that persist through the variations of critical approaches and projective research
in architectural theory and practice.
Design/methodology/approach Further considerations focus on the advanced technological
possibilities which re-invest the relations between principles of cybernetics and architecture.
Findings The current between art and architecture is more than ever manifested in fields related to
the computer sciences and its conceptual background: cybernetic sciences.
Originality/value The paper re-thinks the aesthetic value of architecture and architectural
experience in this time of digital productivity.
Keywords Cybernetics, Architecture, Aesthetics, Experience, Technology, Metaphor
Paper type Research paper

Vol. 40 No. 7/8, 2011
pp. 1196-1206
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/03684921111160421

1. Introduction: drawing up the context

According to many theorists, the last centurys development of digital binary
computers as well as the cybernetics ideas about system, information and conversation
theory or artificial life have come together to define our current digital culture (Gere,
2008 [2002]). The fascination and the direct influence of cybernetic science on the
artistic movements that developed mostly during the 1950s and 1960s were very
strong, passing through kinetic and programmed art, resulting in the determination of
digital architecture. The influence of technology was not weaker, just like that of
industrial robotization, but also new scientific discoveries or avant-guarde art, and this
is a well-known fact. Cybernetics predecessors of todays digital installations
anticipated research focused on the aesthetics of dynamic and process-oriented
possibilities of interaction. Cybernetic culture brought into existence the variety of
ideas that continue to inspire, sometimes unconsciously and/or indirectly todays
artists, architects and designers at the era of digital productivity. Some of the recent
technological quests have influenced the hybridization of procedures and methods by
introducing cybernetic strategies into the design process. Recently, the versatility of
technological innovations becomes the common parameter of disciplinary definition.
For example, the emerging design encompasses technologies such as: sensing systems,
software programming, forms of artificial intelligence, robotic design and
communication systems for new forms of knowledge (Tierney, 2006). From now on,
these emerging technologies have disclosed the experience of simultaneity and
interactivity. The concept of interactivity defined by Gordon Pask in Conversation
Theory (1969) has become the origin of the interactive architecture development at the

time of so-called second-order cybernetics. Pasks early experiments with mechanical

and electrochemical systems provided a conceptual framework for building interactive
artefacts. These interactive artefacts were dealing with the natural, dynamic
complexity of the environments without becoming prescriptive, restrictive and
autocratic (Haque, 2007). Negropontes (1970) ideas of interactivity as he described in
The Architecture Machine were more concerned with the relations man-machine
with digital media as well as design processes rather than the physically built
environment. Next, by expanding upon the earlier ideas of Gordon Pask, Eastman
(1971) further developed the model of interactivity as Adaptive-Conditional
Architecture. Eastman interpreted spaces and users (participants) as complete
reactive feedback systems in which the reaction of one element to another led in return
to a response (input-output). His model of feedback was to control an architecture that
self-adjusts to fit the needs of users in this machine-led approach. These cybernetic
ideas essentially described such actions as responsive (Fox and Kemp, 2008).
The question arises: interactive, reactive or responsive? By these notions if we can
describe today any emergent technology, what about architecture? The current
architectural terminology overflows with terms such as digital architecture,
intelligent environments, responsive environments, smart architecture, or soft
space. Such a terminological inflation (Glanville, 2001) can be related to the fact that
interactivity is actually used to encompass many technologies providing diverse forms
of reaction to the input (Glynn and Shafiei, 2009). These questions are debated about
just because the deep investigation of certain cybernetic assumptions and their
intersections with other fields and disciplines can result in being indispensable in
order to understand the new meaning and the specificity of the actual architectural
research that is increasingly close to the artistic practice in the shared exploration
of new technologies. The centrality of reflection on the interactivity favours
the reconsideration of realities issued from real time experience, simulation or
More than others, the technological, non-linear quest about interactivity is apparent
in dynamic prototypes, performative installations and large-scale active objects. An
interactivity offers an explicit engagement for the user allowing anyone who interacts
to become at minimum a collaborator and in some cases a co-creator of sensitive
experience. Still, this approach could be criticized for its overly technological
application related to the possibilities of designing the control systems by selecting
different value ranges of an interactivity that makes in the end aesthetic experience
artificially programmed. We can then ask if such explorations of the non-linear
interactive process are not just a derivation of the aesthetic experience explorations?
Or, to put it in other words: are these complex calculations based on research into
interaction, real-time simulation or feedback in fact the innocuousness quest for new
kinds of aesthetic experience? Does technologically programmed interactivity
stimulate our senses or simulate our perception of space?
In such a context of recent architectural explorations, persisting through the
research about interactivity, the main purpose of this paper is to re-think the current
aspects of cybernetics concepts (interaction, simulation and feedback) in order to
better understanding the actual meaning of aesthetics awareness, experience and

experience and



2. Interactivity of metaphor(s)
Gordon Pask defined cybernetics as the art and science of manipulating defensible
metaphors. In the architectural field metaphor is usually employed as instruments for
descriptions which convey over the creative ideas and poetic involvement. Metaphor(s)
have also an essential role of creating knowledge as an explanatory device, which, by the
way, has to be distinguished from analogy or comparison. Metaphor is a poetic
counter-concept to the materiality of built architecture, like a dream image of a space that
has been liberated from physical limitations (Vrachliotis, 2008). The term metaphor is
etymologically related to the Greek metapherein, which means, transfer and carrying
over. As the French historian of architecture Antoine Picon observed, since antiquity,
the sciences have served as a source of images and metaphors for architecture and have
had a direct influence on the shaping of built space. Metaphor represents one of the three
regimes of scientific inspiration for architecture after knowledge and method (Picon,
2008). In cybernetic science, metaphor was used as a concept to understand natural
phenomena. For Weiner for example, mathematics was a vast metaphor, a huge
interchange to close or overlapping phenomena of logical-mathematical sequences
(Bougnoux, 1993). Thanks to these processes of metaphoricization concepts such as
communication and feedback advanced to the status of productive and effective
guiding ideas in the architecture of succeeding decades (Vrachliotis, 2008). This is
consistent with the most persistent ideas in current architectural explorations such as:
interactivity and simulation. Both permit architecture to be extended from static to
dynamic object through the simultaneity of variations like real-time changes. In this
paper, we will not examine interactivity of kinetic research such as robotic installations
where the interactive experience is augmented by the effects exuded from the imposing
presence of form and movement. In order to discuss the aesthetics awareness we will
focus on the interactivity based on spatial experience of sensory perception and a mental
registration of a sensory environmental stimulus.
Interactivity, as artists and theorists Usman Hauqe, Ruairi Glynn and
Ranulph Glanville explain, cannot be reduced to the simple act of reacting as a fixed
transfer of predetermined functions (Haque, 2005, 2007). The concept of interactivity in
terms of performance a response to the stimulus in action/reaction mode becomes a
simple trick (Glanville, 2001) that trivialised the meaning of interaction to the point that
it no longer holds conceptual value (Glynn and Shafiei, 2009). A truly interactive system
is one that offers conversation, based on continual and constructive information
exchange. It makes clear that architecture is not simply interactive because it is
embodied by computation and communication technologies premised merely to
actuating. Interactivity is neither about control nor behavioural simulations. The
driving force of interactivity is rather about creating the possibilities for participation
(Eidner and Heinrich, 2009).
This approach to interactivity allows us to think about architecture as an open
system which offers possibilities to new kinds of experience. Since then, technology
has become the metaphorical generator of space as an integrative and formative
element of architectural interactivity. Even so, to bring a metaphor into a physical
world, as American architects Elisabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio did with their
Blur Building, nevertheless, they clearly reject any metaphoric associations for
their project, certainly not to reduce the whole concept of the building to merely a fog
(Figure 1).

experience and

Source: Photo: Norbert Aepli

The primary building material is water, which is pumped from the lake, filtered, and
shot as a fine mist through 31,500 high-pressure mist nozzles. A smart weather
system reads the shifting climatic conditions of temperature, humidity, wind speed
and direction, and processes the data in a central computer that regulates water
pressure; controls fog output in response to shifting climatic conditions such as
temperature, humidity and direction wind speed. Inside, the visitors participate in the
new experience of fog sensing accompanied by the crushing noise of high-pressure
nozzles. Blur Building exemplifies perception capacities by focusing on space
experience. Here, the technology goes beyond the visual aspect of simulation. Blur
Building offers not a metaphor but a real-time transfer of immateriality based on
interactive interdependence: technology-nature. This is an example of interactivity
without any aspect of control, as the weather cannot be controlled, or 100 percent
predicted. A building becomes here an interactive machine, a defensible (in)formal
metaphor of dematerialised (in)visible architectural form. Metaphor as a poetic
counter-concept to the materiality of built architecture becomes its tangible
Another counter-concept to the representation of architectural materiality is
simulation. Usually, the term simulation is understood as visualisation based on
computer modelling, but here we will discuss simulation as a representation of spatial

Figure 1.
Diller and Scofidio
architects: Blur Building,
Switzerland, 2002



3. Simulations, simulacra and the reality effect

The representation of reality oscillates between metaphor and simulation. As the French
physicist and theorist Simon Diner has observed, simulation is a formalised
interpretation of reality and represents a process by another process, for example the
physical process by a mathematical one, etc. The current connections between art and
architecture more than ever are manifest by the common interest in fields such as
mathematics or computing sciences. It is related to the cross-over process of making,
contesting and designing space from non-normative viewpoints of immaterial
representation (like mathematical abstractions). This kind of representation has
always been a part of non-ending enquiry about experiencing architectural space.
Simulation of spatial behaviour is linked to this through the questions concerning the
interrelationships between interactivity and feedback. The French architects R&Sie(n)
recently tried to explore these questions in their conceptual project called: Architecture
of Humeurs (Figures 2 and 3). Francois Roche, the head of the studio explains that
experiment, presented as an artistic installation, provides an interrogation of the
emission of desires. Through the scanning of certain physiological signals and the
implementation of a chemistry of the moods of future purchasers taken as inputs

Language interface
Blood sample
Nano absorption
Micro needle

Physio biochemical


Pulse-heart beat
Skin sample
Medical imagery scanner
X Ray

Non invasive

Physio psychological

Figure 2.
Explanatory diagram of
the project Architecture
of humeurs

Figure 3.
Physiological room for
physiological data
collection for the project
Architecture of humeurs

Behavioral survey

Voice recognition


Polygraph (lie detector)


Video tracking (facial emotions)

Source: Roche (2010 R&Sie(n))

Source: Roche (2010 R&Sie(n))

generating a diversity of habitable morphologies and the relationships between them.

An architecture of humeurs means breaking into languages mechanism of
dissimulation in order to physically construct misunderstandings (Roche, 2010).
The humours collection is organized on the basis of interviews that make visible the
conflict and even schizophrenia of desires, between those secreted (biochemical and
neurobiological) and those expressed through the interface of language (freewill).
Mathematical tools produce a morphological potential (attraction, exclusion, touching,
repulsion and indifference) as a negotiation of distances between the human beings
who are to constitute these collective aggregates. The design process is focused on
dynamic, non-linear effects-amplification, self-organization, symbiosis and
co-evolution (Figure 4).
To put it briefly: this experiment is the simulation of the neuro-biological emissions
of each visitor/participant through computational, mathematical and machinist
procedures. It was designed to produce an urban feedback structure in conformity with
the mechanism of dissimulation. This project evokes another counter-concept such as:
simulate/dissimulate. According to the French theorist Jean Baudrillard to simulate is
to feign to have what one does not have. To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what
one has. One implies a presence, the other an absence. (Baudrillard, 1994, 1996) As
simulate is not pretending this reversibility of absence-presence rapports can be
understood as an abstract reception of reality.
This idea can be applied to another experiment based on the process of simulation.
The project Touchable Holography of Takayuki Hoshi and Masafumi Takahashi is a
tactile and holographic display, which adds tactile feedback to the hovering image in
three-dimensional free space. Tactile sensation is produced on a users hand without
any direct contact and without diluting the quality of the holographic projection
(Figure 5). The question is: is this a simulation of reality or real simulacra? For
Baudrillard, there is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation;
there is only the simulacra. In addition, Baudrillard, 1996 states that:

experience and

[. . .] technology has taken into itself all the illusion it has caused us to lose, what we have in
return for the loss of illusion is the emergence of an objective irony of the world, irony as the
universal form of disillusionment in a world which hides behind the radical illusion of

De la multitude la l Algorithme(s)
Du malentendu la computation physio morphologique

Physiologie des


De la physicalit bio-tricote la l Algorithme(s)


De la physiologic des humeurs
aux malentendus

Bio-cement weaving

De la computation
physio-morphologique la multitude

Mathematical operators
for structural optimization

Source: Roche (2010 R&Sie(n))

Robotic process

Physicalit bio-tricote


Figure 4.
Process of evolution: from
physiology to physicality
through the algorithms
project Architecture of



Figure 5.
Project Touchable
Holography by Takayuki
Hoshi and Masafumi
Takahashi, University of
Tokyo (2008)

Note: It is possible to feel the appearance of the raindrops falling on the hand

His wishful postulate was to go back to the appearance in the world of illusions rather
than disappearing in the world of simulations. The simulation can be also
metaphorically extended to a concept defined by the French social and literary critic
Roland Barthes as the reality effect. For Barthes, simulation can be the narration of the
real in a desire seen as verisimilitude as a referential illusion, which produces the
reality effect. In the narrative representation the real is nothing but an unformulated
concept, sheltering what is being referred to (Barthes, 1984). Simulation becomes here
an interactive metaphor of appearances, a real-time, physical experience of illusion.
Anyway, the fact is that the human emotions and sensory perceptions can now be
produced by virtual simulacra in the material world of immaterial projections.
Then, we can ask if this complex calculation-based research about interaction,
real-time simulation or feedback is not in fact another quest for new kinds of aesthetic
4. Aesthetics awareness of real-time experience
As Frank Popper, a historian of art and technology observed, perception is a
primordial factor of intelligibility about cybernetics creations (Popper, 1975). It goes
through the exploration of the aesthetic experience far beyond the aesthetic
appearances such as pre-programmed simulation of interactivity. This approach is
explored by Usman Haque Josephine Pletts and Dr Luca Turin in their project Scents
of Space (Figure 6). The project is an interactive smell system installation that

experience and

Source: Haque Design + Research, Josephine Pletts and Dr Luca Turin (2006)

involves a three-dimensional placement of fragrances. There are two levels of

interaction: the primary level occurs between visitors and the installation and the
second one between the visitors and the smells themselves.
The system is constantly evolving through a creation of responses to a smell
database, from which strategies of repelling or alluring are developed. Scents of
Space questions the invariant sensitive and spatial interaction through olfactory
perception. Sensing the environments through technological touch can radically
change the modes of everyday perception. More and more, the architectural design
process emphasises using senses other than vision to explore the borders of spatial
perception. Haque, 2005 believes that:
[. . .] if we assume that technology systems in environment design could deal with the
practical and functional requirements of constructed spaces then the beauty in design comes
from the poetries of those who use/implement/remake it.

This example of interactive space reflects the physical environment in the dynamic
relationship of real-time changes. In such a kind of creative research, the goal is to go
towards the natural phenomena through the technological experimentation and not to
simulate it. Architecture becomes a space of sensory input/output experience and sensitive
process of interactive creation. Moreover, the possibilities brought by the emerging
technologies (sensing systems, software programming, forms of artificial intelligence,
robotic design and communication systems for new forms of knowledge, etc.) amplify the
creative aspect of the interactivity. Experience becomes a sensitive process of feedback in
the logic of instantaneity based on human-technology relations, which redefines the

Figure 6.
Scents of Space



concept of aesthetic awareness. Clearly, aesthetic awareness becomes today the inquiry
about the emotional alienation from and accommodation with technology.
5. Conclusion
The current connections between art and architecture, nowadays more than ever are
manifested by the common interest in fields related to the computer sciences and its
conceptual background: cybernetic sciences. The notion of an interactive architecture
emerged from cyberneticists concepts brought to ideas the interactive environments
and spaces able to sense, converse, and participate with their users. Since, the process
of interaction re-designs the abilities of sensing as a new kind of generating experience
dialogue. So, the externalisation of cybernetic conceptual models of interactivity, as
well as technological progress, influences the explorations of the (in)formal and
(in)visible nature of architectural space and its representation. It is related to the
cross-over process of making, contesting and designing space from non-normative
viewpoints of immaterial representation. In this context, metaphor embraces the
emotive and sensorial aspect of the design process and then, sensitivity becomes the
primary expressions of spatial reality. Re-definition of the nature of aesthetics as a
non-predicted space experience is seeking to liberate the perceptible potentiality of
architecture rather than be encased as new technological standards of design and
production. Such a concept of aesthetics reflects a permanent dialogue between the
technological world and human behaviours, between systems and metaphors as well
as limits and delimitations of creativity. Then, the most important point is to
understand better the creative possibilities and limits that the ubiquity and
multi-functionality of technology offer. In other words: to be aware of the technological
reality effects is to remember the true conceptual value of any artistic production.
Finally, to re-think the current aspects of aesthetics awareness, experience and
metaphor is to accept the existence of the new possibilities in understanding the space
immateriality as a system of permanent interactions. And, according to the
cybernetician Humberto Maturana:
Understanding a system requires both intuition as a gestaltic grasping of the systemic
coherences of the system under consideration, and the seeing of the structural (causal)
coherences of the locality where the observer stands. Understanding further involves relating
these two different operational perspectives in a manner that, although not deductive, shows
the dynamic connectedness of any part of the system to the dynamic totality that the
system is.
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Further reading
Beesley, P., Sachiko, H. and Ruxton, J. (2006), Toward Responsive Architectures in Responsive
Architecture: Subtle Technologies 06, Riverside Architectural Press, Toronto.
Frazer, J.H. (1995), An Evolutionary Architecture, Architectural Association Publications,
Pask, G. (1975), Conversation Cognition and Learning, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
Pask, G. (1976), Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology, Elsevier,
Pask, G. (1995), Foreword, in Frazer, J.H. (Ed.), An Evolutionary Architecture, Architectural
Association Publications, London.
Picon, A., Ponte, A. and Lerner, R. (2003), Architecture and the Sciences: Exchanging Metaphors,
Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY.
Wiener, N. (1950), Cybernetique et societe, in Bougnoux, D. (Ed.), Sciences de lInformation et de
la Communication, Larousse, Paris, pp. 442-54 (1993), available at: www.nedelcu.net/

experience and



About the author

Joanna Wlaszyn, architect and researcher, is a member of LIAT Research Laboratory at Ecole
Nationale Superieure dArchitecture Paris Malaquais ENSAPM in Paris. She graduated from
Technical University of Gdansk in Poland (MArch.) and Design School ENSCI in Paris (MS New
Technology Design) and is now working as an independent professional architect and designer
and carrying on PhD research called: (In)visible Dimension: Technological Reception of
Architecture. Research fields include: the phenomenological approach to contemporary
architecture, the aesthetic relationship between art, architecture and technology, with a
particular focus on the experimental architecture and its technological modes of production,
reception and representation. Joanna Wlaszyn can be contacted at: joanna.wlaszyn@gmail.com

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