Interview with Usman Haque

Daniele Mancini: I’ve never found precise info about you background, your life before being haque:design+research. Have you been trained as an architect, haven’t you?

Usman Haque: Briefly I was born 1971, Washington DC, USA, trained as an architect at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London from 1990 to 1996, with a year out working in Malaysia ’93 to ’94 …

DM: Watching back, how relevant has been your background in architecture for your current investigation/activity? Can you say something about the cultural imprinting you got from the Bartlett School?

UH: I am an architect and I do what I do simply because I would like to contribute to the architectural discourse so, yes, certainly my background has been relevant to my current activity… Of course I am well aware that studying at the Bartlett in the 90s has had certain effects on me, and some might say that I have been brainwashed. I prefer to say that I am simply the obvious result of what you get if you mix up Frosso Pimenides, Simon Herron and Stephen Gage in a blender….

DM: Who was the most inspiring teacher during the school and why?

UH: Must be Prof. Stephen Gage, (I later taught in his unit too). Stephen is probably one of the only people who simultaneously understands the deep intricacies of cybernetics while also being able to detail a roof that doesn’t leak…

DM: How did it come you follows a class in cybernetics?

UH: I was introduced to cybernetics by my tutor Ranulph Glanville. This had a profound effect on my life and work because I suddenly discovered that a lot of the things I had been thinking about in an unstructured way actually had historical precedent and had been carefully thought out and formalized even before I was born. The elegance of cybernetics is that it enables you to understand how to build complex systems; even more important is that it enables you to understand how complex systems can build themselves. It provides a rigorous framework for building up an understanding of everything from languages to environments to interactions.

In particular Ranulph told me about the work of Gordon Pask; and a few years later I remembered that I had actually attended a lecture by Pask without knowing who he was – the entire hour had gone completely over my head and I hadn’t understood anything. How I kicked myself later for not paying more attention…. Ranulph also introduced me to some of my favourite people on the planet, people I have kept in contact with and continue to work with to this day; so this too has had a profound effect on the way I live and work.

To know more about Pask and cybernetics I should direct you to: “The architectural relevance of Cybernetics”, which Pask published in AD back in 1969; or perhaps my own forthcoming article “The Architectural relevance of Gordon Pask” coming out soon in an AD publication edited by Lucy Bullivant (title not yet sure but something like 4dSocial) might begin to explain some of these things.

DM: Many of your projects explores the application of Open Source strategies learned from Computer Science. You often recur to the expression “Open Source Architectures”. Can you explain the analogy?

UH: “Open source” in the software universe refers to a type of source code (with which software is designed and built) that is accessible to all; that is freely distributed as long as it remains equally open; that allows for modification and derivatives as long as the result is equally open; that is non-discriminatory; where patching is possible without disturbing the integrity of the main work; and that is technology neutral.

Similarly, an open source architecture requires a framework in which the distinction between “those who design” and “those who use” is replaced by participatory system that encourages a constructed project to be constantly “patched” or “performed”.

Such an architecture comes close to the visions Dutch artist, architect and situationist Constant had in his project New Babylon. In this massive exploration he assumed that everyone is an artist in the design and construction of their spaces, events and lives. His project proposed a worldwide structure constantly built and rebuilt by its inhabitants, a structure that varied throughout its lengths as different groups of people contributed to it and altered it in different ways.

DM: This implies Architecture could be think as a software. What does it imply?

UH: Traditionally, architecture has been thought of as hardware: the static walls, roofs and floors that enclose us. An alternative approach is to think of architecture as software: the dynamic and ephemeral sounds, smells, temperatures even radio waves that surround us. One might also consider the social infrastructures that underpin our designed spaces. Pushing this analogy even further, we can think of architecture as a whole as an “operating system”, within which people create their own programmes for spatial interaction.

Architectural design that emphasises “softspace” over “hardspace” is a little like “software” design rather than “hardware design” in computer terminology, where “hardware” refers to the physical machine and “software” refers to the programs that animate the machine. In an architectural context, technology is used to provoke interactions between people, and between people and their spaces.

If softspace encourages people to become performers within their own environments, then hardspace provides a framework to animate these interactions. The idea of an architectural operating system lies in the design of the systems that integrate the two. One model of operating system that is particularly relevant to architecture (since the design of space is always a collaborative process) is an open source system.

Applying open source to architecture suggests a collaborative democratic project that exists in time as well as space: an architecture that is created by people through its use, as a performance, a conversation, a bodystorm that goes on throughout the life of the architectural system, whether it is a building or other architectural situation.

DM: So, the final goal of the Open Source Architecture looks to be, essentially, to make people participating in the design of their own environment in a more sustainable way…

UH: Yes, to find ways that enable people to become more engaged with the spaces that we inhabit; to this extent it is quite explicitly socio-political. Works like Open Burble are less about the spectacular urban experience and more about exploring ways that “normal” people come together to design, construct, negotiate and critique with each other concerning design decisions.

DM: Let’s talk about the other (ideological) aspect that consequently comes from the Open Source ethos: hacking, or, in general, reusing what other have done before for a new purpose. You wrote a sort of Do It Yourself Manual about reusing low tech components of hacked toys you can find “on the shelf” … Which was the motivation?

UH: I was always interested in hacking, in the sense of taking things apart to understand how they work, and trying to find ways to assemble them so that they work differently or possibly better than before. I guess that’s how I became involved in technology, because it is the currency that our culture deals with, and hacking cultural constructs is the most fun of all…

About Low Tech, it is simply the natural way to go: I’m not terribly good at designing electronics, my software skills are varied but from a professional perspective quite mediocre and so I have to take an approach where I can put together things quickly to the best of my abilities…

I wrote the Low Tech Manual in collaboration with Aether Architecture (Adam Somlai-Fisher) thinking at artists and architects (like myself) who want to cheaply prototype interactive spaces and responsive systems. They don’t necessarily need the precision and accuracy that scientists usually do in order to explore the poetries of interaction. They therefore often do not require such sophisticated equipment in order to develop truly interesting interactive projects. All the sensors and actuators needed can disassembled from inexpensively off-the-shelf toys and simple technological devices that might even already exist in people’s homes.

DM: Another theme you tackle is the way technology help us to make visible the invisible, to reveal, to augment, to put under the spot a phenomenon we usually ignore…

UH: Well, I am not that interested in making visible the invisible, although I recognise that it is often the by-product of my work (e.g. Sky Ear, Wifi Camera); I am however, interested in operating with phenomena that are impossible to photograph.

Scent of Space (2002) for example, is an interactive smell system that allows for the three-dimensional placement of fragrances in space with minimal dispersion due to air movement. The system enables us to move beyond using fragrances for mere branding
of space; we are now able to use them to create fragrance collage zones and boundaries on-the-fly.

Scents of Space posits that if an architectural space could be precisely “tuned” with scent collages, it would be possible to create completely new ways of experiencing, controlling and interacting with space.

Another project that continues my investigation into a non-visual architecture is Haunt (2004). Using humidity, temperatures and electromagnetic and sonic frequencies that parapsychologists have associated with haunted spaces, this project aims at building an environment that feels “haunted”.

There are some observed spatial phenomena that tend to correlate with a haunted sensation in a space. Infrasound, at frequencies of 18 or 19Hz, is just outside our ability to hear, however our bodies can feel these low rumblings subliminally. Such frequencies have been shown to elicit feelings of unease and to upset the sense of balance. Wide fluctuations in temperature, which can make hair stand on end, have been associated with apparently haunted spaces. Finally, electromagnetic fields appear to play a particular role in so-called hauntingsxii. Some have argued that electric fields from appliances, antennae or nearby power cables have created sensations of haunting.

This project does not attempt to explain how the phenomena arise, or even how they give rise to haunted perceptions. Rather, the project focuses on how the psychology of human perception gives rise to the construction of space. In pursuing the opposite of what architecture is often assumed to be, this project will attempt to make an uncomfortable space.

Incidentally, I should also say that I am not interested in artistic interpretations of ‘synaesthesia’ – such interpretations always depend on a metaphor that just isn’t valid.

DM: And, what about the impossibility to 100% predict how an installation will react to external agents? I’m talking about the indeterminacy you as an artist (or architect or performer) have to manage thinking about the users action/reactions…

UH: One big problem with so-called “interactive” architecture and art is that in fact there is no indeterminacy: the designer has pre-determined the algorithms, and the possible inputs and outputs, even if he/she isn’t able to predict what someone might do (e.g. by having a movement sensor, you’re not able to predict how someone will move, but you’re still restricting input to that which can be quantified as “movement”; you’re also pre-defining what the system will output in response to what it considers “movement”). It has often been thought that the use of a dynamic/responsive system like a computer in itself enables a designed artifact to “open up” to public participation; but actually, the rigidity of algorithms and input/output criteria usually employed in such systems mean that they are just as autocratic as traditional media.

Indeterminacy would be a good thing I think, just like Pask’s “under-specified” systems; in contrast to the half-loop model of “reactive” algorithms often employed in so-called “interactive” works, Pask was more interested in double-loop models where (in the first loop) nothing exists until one enters in conversations with the artifacts (or until the artifacts themselves have conversations) and (in the second loop) variations in goals (of the designed construct *and* the human participant) create evolving and unpredictable interactions whose sum total is “conversational” in a valid sense.

It is not about concealing and then revealing but rather about “creating” information, just as Wikipedia does in the context of the web. Pask was interested in exploring models in which data is actually “created” by the participants and nothing exists until one enters in conversations with the artifacts (or until the artifacts themselves have conversations). In his participant-focused constructional approach, the data has no limits. In his systems, how something reacts is closely entwined with how externalities (like humans) reacted to the system in the past; indeterminacy is a pre-requisite.

DM: I’m very much interested to know more about your ENVIRONMENT XML. I’ve recently intervied Carlo Ratti from MIT who is working on projects with quite similar purposes. Briefly, how d’you expect other people will use/visualize data?

UH: No idea actually! Just hoping that people will make things that connect together remotely; something like Tobi Schneidler’s “Remote Home” would be relatively straightforward to achieve with environmentXML.

All Environment XML does is provide the feeds – people can decide what they want to do with that info: make an interactive environment, a device that responds to remote spaces, build a web page that updates with remote environmental conditions, whatever…. I have some plans for connecting to some of the already-existing feeds, but I prefer not to discuss them just yet because I am more interested to let people think about how they would like to use them. Like Flickr, the idea is that you are able to share the data that you have created.

DM: Still I think the meaning of the project is missing unless you visualize/represent/sonify data somehow…

UH: I don’t think data aesthetics are a particularly useful end-product – it is much more important to consider what happens to the concept of architecture when spaces become intimately entwined even though geographically remote. It is less about making something representational and more about making actual connections (and by extension relationships) between things.

EXML is basically three things: a repository for data feeds; a dialect of XML enabling people to standardise the way they connect remote environments through the internet; and a system for adding “tags” to their feeds in order to share them without knowing in advance who is going to make use of them.

As a first step, I’ve released a Processing library making it easy to stream and receive data in just a couple of lines; next I hope to integrate it more closely in the arduino platform.

DM: What do you aim? The pre-vision? Which is the hidden context?

UH: There is a strong conceptual link to Stafford Beer’s Cybersyn project in Chile, which connected up industries around the country in order to develop complex second order cybernetic systems. I would love to be able to work with something like that, once there are many feeds added to the Environment XML repository.

DM: Is it more about, again, the idea of an open source platform? How close is this project to Pinkie and Open I/O by Burak Arikan?

UH: There are many connections and I have briefly discussed the project with Burak; though as I understand it Pinkies are a particular hardware platform (Environment XML is of course hardware independent).

DM: You belong to a pioneering generation of interactive artist/architects that need to face also the not very easy issue of make institution trust your experiments… Where do funds come from? Do they come from academia ? Private sponsors? From the art circuit?

UH: My projects tend to be funded by institutional grants, occasionally commissions or large scale events. Interestingly, more and more of the institutions I have been involved with are open to (or even insist on) open source or Creative Commons approaches.

DM: How difficult is to be granted?

UH: It’s very difficult; I think I have less than 10% success rate, though it seems to be getting a little easier now that past work has been funded.

DM: Why it is difficult by your point of view?

UH: It’s difficult because, frankly, it should be difficult. If it was easy to get things funded then I think we would see even more crap than we already see funded….. I cannot complain about this difficulty because I think the process also helps to tighten up proposals, make you really think about what you are intending to do, ensure that there really is a point to the proposal you are trying to put forward. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the approach also then defines the kind of work that gets funded… In this sense, there is one aspect that makes it problematic for me: I almost always have to force my projects to fit into a particular category, usually one that they don’t sit comfortably in. I would like to leave them in a more general “architecture” category, but sometimes I have to respond to more “artistic” concerns that may not come naturally, or, as in Evolving Sonic Environment, artificial consciousness discourse – which is certainly interesting but then I have to attain a certain level of rigour that is often absent in less science-based approaches.

DM: How did you manage the first sponsorship? I mean, what was your first sponsored project? How consistent was the budget?

UH: The first project sponsored…. Hmmm…. Maybe that was my Moody Mushroom Floor, my diploma project at the Bartlett; while I was trying to finish it off I ran out of money for some of the expensive electronics so I called up MPS electronics and told them about what I was trying to do. I think they agreed to give me about 80% of the stuff I needed free of charge. As far as process goes, the project always comes first; and then one day I find the appropriate funding avenue.

DM: Say references you never miss to look at and more. One architect, why?

UH: Cedric Price: he has done it all ! It seems like he’s done everything you’d ever like to try…

DM: One architecture, why?

UH: My aunt’s shower room in Karachi, Pakistan: it is amazing how small you can make a room and still make it both efficient and comfortable.

DM: One book of architecture, why?

UH: The Idea of Building, by Stephen Groak: in this book Groak sets out everything from novel design processes, “intelligent buildings” to ambient environments, in very clear and prosaic way (he was an engineer at Ove Arup).

DM: One book , why?

UH: An Approach to Cybernetics, by Gordon Pask: explains in great detail but very clear language why cybernetics is relevant to the design of novel systems. Also Evergreen Review/What is Pataphysics: gives you a new way of looking at the world.

DM: One movie, why?

UH: Fists in the pocket (I pugni in tasca) Marco Bellochio: it was the first film I ever saw that left me stunned and wanting to make my own.

DM: The project you would have done, envy, why?

UH: Paypal: because in the 90s I set up something called The Global Village Bank with my friend Naoki, and if we had only been a little more business-minded it could have become Paypal….

DM: A piece of art, why?

UH: “Kagoshima Esperanto” by Tadasu Takamine: his work is stunningly moving. I think I love everything he has ever done.

DM: A place to visit, why?

UH: The concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Tschumi said “To really appreciate architecture, you may even need to commit a murder.” It seems to be that Guantanamo is the solidification of everything that architecture means today.

DM: What excite you more in the work you done?

UH: Everything, just before I do it.

DM: What bore you more in the work you done?

UH: Everything, just after I finish it…

DM: Thank you!

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