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How's the environment doing? Ask the buildings

By Nicolai Hartvig, for CNN
  • Designers are using technology to connect building, the environment and people
  • Projects include shape-changing buildings and rivers that "text" their health
  • Features of social networking used to engage people and raise eco-awareness

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- Imagine that you could double the size of your apartment as a reward for saving electricity, water and gas. It's an idea proposed by the Seoul-based design collective Randomwalks and architect Lee Min-soo for the green redevelopment of Incheon, outside the South Korean capital.

Called Data Formation, apartments would start at 90 square meters, with a system of sliding modules stretching the space according to how much energy each dweller uses and saves. Bespoke furniture would be designed to fit the size-shifting rooms.

"I'm trying to make data more relevant to the people who create it," Sey Min, the founder of Randomwalks, told CNN. "I get a bill every month for my electricity, but those numbers couldn't really help me change my behavior."

Data Formation can be seen as part of a growing trend of architects and designers seeking to help and engage people with important issues, and move beyond the one-way communication of electronic signs and glittering LED facades. To some, architecture itself is changing.

You could add a building facade as a contact on your phone, and this part of the environment becomes part of your social network.
--David Benjamin, interactive designer

"We're at a very special point in design when a counter-revolution is about to happen, very similar to the 1920s, when [Swiss-French pioneer of Modern Architecture] Le Corbusier wrote that machine civilization was looking for its architectural expression," Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told CNN.

"Today it's a digital civilization that is really about to find its architectural expression."

SENSEable is at the center of new thinking about design. Its Copenhagen Wheel is a sleek red hub that fits onto any bicycle, with a generator that stores kinetic energy from pedaling and releases it to help the rider with an occasional torque boost.

The wheel can interface with a smart phone to deliver live air pollution counts through its onboard sensor, allowing cyclists to map out the cleanest routes and share them with others through a phone app and Web site.

The latest SENSEable proposal is bold -- an upside down Eiffel Tower structure of floating balloons, called The Cloud, designed for the 2012 Olympics Games in London. The surface of the balloons would carry live images of the Games and update people via social networks on the latest developments.

Getting status updates from intelligent buildings or structures is not so far fetched, according to some designers.

"You literally could add a building facade in [New York's] Peace Park or a section of the East River as a contact on your phone. This part of the environment becomes part of your social network," interactive designer David Benjamin told CNN.

Benjamin along with Soo-in Yang developed The Living Light, a pavillion in Seoul that lights up to show real-time air pollution in the city's neighborhoods - and also gathers data from people texting the pavillion to chart public interest.

The pair previously planted interactive sensors in the East River and Bronx River in New York as part of their Amphibious Architecture project, engaging passers-by in a choose-your-own-adventure style series of texts about water quality and the presence of fish.

The designers are now getting requests for sibling projects and are intrigued by the possible connections.

"A Living Light in Seoul could communicate with a Living Light in New York, which could communicate with a Living Light in Rio and then we could get some really interesting and rich interactions," said Benjamin.

For Min, the philosophy is to offer incentives rewarding good behavior and collective responsibility.

"If a person saves energy in a small space, we can judge that the person will also be better able to manage the larger space," said Min, adding that anyone who chose to live in a Data Formation apartment would probably be confident in his sustainable behavior.

Green benefits aside, the new architecture is raising budding concerns about nanny design and practical authoritarianism.

Artist and inventor David Jimison questions the smarts of smart design in a project with artist JooYoun Paek. It prototypes a park bench which dumps off people who have outstayed their welcome and a trash can that throws unapproved garbage back at you.

The goal was to create something that people could imagine in their space -- and then have it be "a very intentional failure," Jimison told CNN, adding that the Too Smart City project is only provocative satire, even if some take it seriously and get upset.

"The concern that I have is that, especially in public spaces, design questions don't happen in the public sphere until they're already implemented," said Jimison.

"The problem with these scenarios, whether they're good or negative, is that they're instituting this very top-down structuring of space.

"There are design structures for organic growth. I think you see that in the open source movement and in some of the new robotics coming out, kind of plugged together like Lego."

Others see the progress as liberating.

"The trend really goes toward giving more power to the human," said Ratti, noting that for decades, architecture was forced to accommodate technology before social and health concerns.

"When technology becomes so pervasive, you can think again as an architect about what really is human care," said Ratti.

"The driving force is good environmental conditions, sunlight, daylight, natural ventilation, meeting other people and having a sociable environment, mating, all these things that we've been caring about over the past few thousand years."