MIT Thesis

Preface: The Accelerating Species


I produced this thesis project as an optional part of my undergraduate education in the MIT architecture program.  I wanted to pursue a project that would inform my future work as a designer.  A Space to Complement an Accelerating Species: A Space of Slower Time, Optimism, and Contemplation was my response to the tension that exists between our fast-paced techno-culture and other, slower, more contemplative modes of human existence.  In 2008, at the time that I produced this body of work, I had recently finished reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.  My response to this was so strong, and also being a recent transplant from rural to urban life, I felt compelled to reconcile what I believed to be opposing poles of human existence, on the one hand the desire to overcome the biological constraints of our bodies and understand the universe, and on the other hand what appeared to me to be a superficiality of existence that was an artifact of the pressures placed on people when things change faster and faster and when the demands of work become oppressive.


Over the decade since I finished this work, I have watched as many of Kurzweil’s predictions have come true in one form or another.  This decade has been a whirlwind in itself.  Since 2008 we have seen the first African American President, followed by the rise of a president with fascist leanings and an emboldened white-supremacist movement that wants to bring America back to the days of slavery.  We have seen the majority of Americans catch up with the times and support marriage equality.  We have seen the propagation of the smartphone as the closest companion of nearly all Americans, the decrease in face-to-face interaction, and the subsequent death of the awkward silence (there are virtues in silent companionship).  Work has continued to creep further into our personal lives, and just as Kurzweil predicted we walk around with broadband connections in our pockets.  The workplace has in some ways become less of a geographical place.  Meanwhile we have shifted from broadcast/cable television as our primary sources of entertainment and news to streaming on-demand media.  The music album has given way to the single and the culture of sitting down to listen to music has all but died (although vinyl is making a resurgence among the counter-culture).  Twitter has become a legitimate news source and there are bots that are programmed to broadcast misinformation or twisted facts.  Home-grown terrorism has become an even-more prescient threat, and the first 3d printed gun became available online for anyone to download and fabricate.  In the medical world we have developed promising cancer therapies, DNA sequencing has become commonplace, and CRISPR has made editing the genome of living creatures feasible, bringing potentially ground-breaking therapies closer to our reach.  Augmented reality has begun to enter our culture; Google Glass was an early foray into this but we see more pervasive augmented reality in the world of the smartphone; Pokémon Go was an example of this.  We live within a hurricane of evolution and devolution and the human experience does not seem to be getting better or worse, but only weirder.  We live within a time of intense fear, fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of insignificance and obsolescence.  The human connection, the casual conversation or spontaneous experience, this in particular seems to be suffering the most.


I am not a pessimist.  In fact I would say that all of the above is actually the result of idealism, for if one is idealistic, and hopes to see things get better, in fact believes things must get better, one cannot also help but feel extreme sadness and frustration with a society that behaves like a lunatic.


Because I am idealistic, I see that there are an infinitude of ways that technology can evolve, our current paradigm just one of them.  We can choose what path we want to go down and how we want to evolve our technologies and what human qualities we want to amplify or silence.


Maintaining Human Needs While Embracing Change


As we enter this new world, it is vital that we remember those things that we hold dear to ourselves.  Embracing the future does not mean that we must throw out the past.  Moving into a rapidly changing world, we must be open to change and willing to accept new ideas, but also to meld these new concepts with the ancient needs of human beings, including a need to feel part of the natural, physical world.  By reawakening a closeness to the rhythms of the universe within the context of a technologically advanced civilization, we may even find ourselves defining a new spiritual side to society.


In the words of the philosopher John O’Donohue, “stress is a perverted relation to time.”[1]  In his view, stress is a result of seeing time as a physical commodity, something to be saved and used wisely.  When we think of time in this way, it makes time the enemy, something to work against.  Downtime equals waste-time.  O’Donohue believes that there are multiple forms of time.  There is “surface time,” which he describes as rapid time that is over-structured.  There is also meditation or contemplation time, where one can “slip down beneath the waves, where it is still.”


Modern society is in need of new type of space, a space where time is slower and people are able to contemplate being, instead of flitting across the surface of time as quickly as possible without actually being present in the current moment.  This is a space that is conducive to meditation and contemplation of the world around us.  This is also a place of optimism, a place in which one’s spirit rises.


Many spaces of this character exist in today’s world.  Perhaps the most obvious are churches and gardens.  Churches exist to fill this very spot in people’s lives.  They exist to help give meaning to life and to bring people together. Churches are inward-facing.  The way that they work is by creating an inner sanctuary that frees people from the intensity of life outside.


Gardens often work by creating another world of nature within a foreign context.  These are places where we can let our imaginations run free, and let our senses idly absorb our surroundings.  Especially relevant here are the gardens in Kyoto, Japan, designed as miniature versions of the world.


The types of space described above are dependent on separation and the imagination of the individual.  They are primarily introspective spaces.  These types of spaces have similar environmental qualities.  They offer relief from the intense sonic environment of the modern urban space (a space that may go from relative silence to complete chaos in rapid succession many times a day).  They also create barriers to the city in order to create the psychological shift to another world.


Similar to the above spaces, the smartphone is an introverted space, a space designed to shelter from an unfriendly world as opposed to make the user feel part of the world.  The smartphone isolates the user from the outside world and adds a layer of information over the physical world.


The Extrospective Space


Extrospective spaces involve direct connection with the world around oneself.  These spaces are less conventional (particularly to western culture).  These spaces include rural areas and other outdoor spaces where the influence of humans is diminished.  One also finds that the way of life in these areas is generally slower, more in tune with the rhythms of the world as opposed to the rhythms of a mass of people.  Spaces like these usually contain many expansive views to infinity.  They place humans within a larger perspective and one starts to look at things on a bigger scale than day-to-day happenings.  The earth, trees, and sky are more readily visible, and the focus becomes more on the scale of millions of years, with importance placed on the beauty of the moment.  On the level of an individual’s experience, this is often manifested in the way that natural environments tend to soothe the mind.  For whatever reason, historical spaces, those that seem old or have been through a lot, and show wear and tear, seem to inspire a meditative state of mind.  Both old landscapes and historic manmade structures can have a similar effect.  A weathered rock can be just as powerful an image as an old brick farmhouse.


Awareness of the “Soundscape”


In considering the need for spaces of contemplation within our society any discussion must consider the fact that we live in a sonic environment as well as a visual one.  In the modern world, sight is perhaps the most relied upon sense for information gathering.  This makes sense, because knowledge in the modern world is conveyed mainly through text, video, and photographs.  The clamor of cars and trucks and jackhammers in our modern cities consists of high-energy noise, which crowds out other crisper sounds (such as birds and voices) and takes control of the environment.  This is described by R. Murray Schafer in The Soundscape (1977) as a “lo-fi” soundscape.[2]  In cities there is always background noise, at any time of day.  Sounds can only be heard from relatively short distances.  This type of environment contrasts the crisp, clear, “hi-fi” environment of rural and wilderness areas, where sounds can be heard from miles away.  As an example, on quiet days, in rural areas one can hear train cars clacking over rails at distances of ten or more miles from the ear.  A hi-fi environment is just as much about silence as it is about sound.  Because it is possible to hear sounds from a great distance, it is possible to orient oneself in rural environments through the reading of the soundscape.  In a city, writes Schafer, “perspective is lost.”[3]  Additionally, because most of the auditory information in cities is chaotic and disruptive, we learn to filter out environmental sounds.  We also tend to substitute other sounds for those in our environment through headphones.


In describing features of the soundscape, Schafer uses three main terms: keynote sounds, signals, and soundmarks.  Keynotes are like the fundamental tones in music, setting the key to a piece.  We are aware of keynotes in environments on a subconscious level.  Keynotes include any sound characteristic of an environment, including water, wind, and birds.[4]  Signals are focal points, things that we listen to consciously, and cannot help to be aware of them.[5]  Signals include sirens and warnings.  Soundmarks are landmarks of the soundscape.[6]  According to Schafer, these sounds are what make particular communities unique.


What we want to do in modern urban environments, in Schafer’s words, is to “recover positive silence”[7].  According to Schafer, silence generally has a negative connotation in our language.  It is perceived as emptiness, without life, even boring.  Schafer also introduces the term “Temple of Silence,”[8] to refer to a building with no other purpose than meditation.  This space is designed to create peace in the user, and one step in creating peace involves silence.  Perhaps the anechoic chamber, a padded room in which sounds are silenced by the surfaces and one cannot even hear their own reflected voice, a space in which one can hear their own heartbeat and blood in their vessels, is the closest thing to the Temple of Silence.


Murray Schafer: “Today, as a result of increasing sonic incursions, we are even beginning to lose an understanding of the word concentration. The words survive all right, that is to say, their skeletons lie in dictionaries; but there are few of us who know how to breathe life into them. A recovery of contemplation would teach us how to regard silence as a positive and felicitous state in itself, as the great and beautiful backdrop over which our actions are sketched and without which they would be incomprehensible, indeed could not even exist.  There have been numerous philosophies expressing this idea and we know that great periods of human history have been conditioned by them.  Such was the message of Lao-Tzu: ‘Give up haste and activity.  Close your mouth.  Only then will you comprehend the spirit of Tâo.’”[9]


The Cyborg Space


In 1984, landscape architect Anne Spirn wrote The Granite Garden, which showed how humans and urban landscapes are part of nature, just as natural as a piece of untouched wilderness.  The notion of including humans within the ecosystem was revolutionary at the time, an idea that grew out of the rise of ecology during the preceding decades, including the work of Ian McHarg in Design With Nature.  In this book, McHarg examined new ways of interpreting large-scale landscapes as ecological systems, using a large list of variables and a ranking system to determine how best one could develop a site.  This type of large-scale thinking is what needs to go on when considering the relationship of the body to the universe.  Although the local scale is what we are most aware of, there are also infinite scales big and small that one could be aware of.


Humans are indeed part of nature, and if we do not realize this, we are at risk of alienating ourselves from a vital part of what it means to be human.  Virtually all landscapes have been touched by humans.  The act of defining nature only in terms of wilderness areas[10] (areas with little or no human impact) devalues the importance of the majority of landscapes that surround us.  By defining areas of strict conservation, or defining areas as pristine, we set up a hard line between human or urban areas and “natural areas.”  This hard line exists today.  The newly emerging field of landscape urbanism attempts to break down some of these barriers by viewing humanity as inhabiting one continuous landscape, with gradients from very wild to very controlled.  All of these spaces have equal value, and all must be included within a future urban landscape.


This gradient is useful when thinking about how to create spaces of contemplation within cities.  The notion of “parks” as urban blocks of green space perpetuates a dichotomy between the urban and the natural.  One must “go” to the park, and must also “leave” at some point to go home.  Our level of contemplation can vary along a gradient where in the densest areas of “contemplation” one becomes more aware of the moment.  The individual is elevated to another plane of consciousness.


Ideally, every single person would have immediate access to a contemplative space (perhaps this is an inalienable right of human beings) without the need to drive there.  We can imagine the fabric that would exist in a city between its most contemplative spaces and its most rigorous, rationalized spaces.


By allowing ourselves to view our human condition as part of nature, we relax tensions between technology and nature as well.  We can start to see technology as something to work with nature.  Our most contemplative spaces need not be areas of completely wilderness; they can just as easily be the most technologically-advanced spaces.  They can also include hybrids of technology and the wild, symbiotic relationships that enhance both the wild and the human.


Earth Rhythms


Nature works in cyclic, ever-changing rhythm, where cycles nearly repeat however are never quite the same, multiple cycles oscillating and affecting each other.  Some cycles are very hard and most-nearly unchanging, like the passage of the Earth around the Sun, and the resultant change in daylight and seasons.  Other cycles are less predictable, like varying populations of frogs from year to year.  No matter what, however, because of the infinite numbers of cycles happening simultaneously, each operating somewhat independently, our experience of the environment is forever in flux, each moment ephemeral and unique.  While we may experience similar effects on multiple occasions, they are never exactly the same.


Take the interaction of the Sun and the Moon, for example.  While the path of the Sun is extremely regular and is basically constant from year to year, the rhythms of the Moon occur on a cycle of 27 days, and because of this, moon phases vary in date from year to year.  Bring in the other earth-cycles, such as wind speed and direction, temperature, cloudiness, humidity, the presence of large crowds of people, whether or not the insects are having a good year, whether it is the year of the 17 year cicada, and so on; it is apparent that no single event has ever occurred before nor will ever occur again for eternity.


One who lives in a rural area may feel more connected to the natural world because of the obvious direct connection between landscape and their own existence.  It also easier to observe the changes that occur with the seasons, from day to day, from one weather pattern to another.  Observing these systems forces one to think about things bigger than their own life.


Architects can be Earth-Composers


The natural rhythms of the Earth and celestial bodies can be tied directly to structures, especially those designed to help us feel part of a larger whole.  Architecture is something that both responds to and contributes to the environment.  Because natural cycles vary infinitely, the reaction of the structure to the environment becomes a performance that varies infinitely, forever in flux.  While responding to stimuli in the environment, the structure adds to the environment as well, carrying on a conversation with everything around it, including the people in the structure (sensors may detect the movements of people and cause responses, and people will subsequently respond).


In this thesis, I chose to site an interactive space over the surface of the Charles River in Boston, where there are numerous environmental factors that the structure can respond to, including the passage of the Sun across the sky, varying light conditions, the phases of the Moon, wind speed and direction, the color of the water and sky, and the passage of people through the site.  Because of the nature of the site, it is perfectly sited as a location for performance.  The Esplanade on the Boston side of the river forms an amphitheater of sorts, from which people can observe the structure.  On the other hand, one may walk out into the river to become part of the performance.


While the performance is a response to stimuli in the environment, it is also dependent on the designer for guidance.  In other words, performances responding to the same stimuli could vary greatly from structure to structure, depending on how design elements are “tuned” to respond.  Here, emphasis is placed on relatively steady, fluid moves (both visual and musical), a background of energy tuned to gradual seasonal changes.  Another environmentally-responsive structure might instead be tuned so that the underlying rhythm is tuned to cars moving by.


The structure is ordered like a sun-path diagram, with paths relating to to paths of the sun across the sky, as well as ideal circulation paths through the site.  This layout is not mere symbolism of the sun diagram; the arching pathways interact with a tower in the center of the river that acts like a giant sundial, passing its shadow over different walls on different days, and interacting with individual parts of walls at certain times.  Particular importance is placed on the solstices, on which special performances occur.  For example, on the winter solstice, the setting Sun will shine down a line through the site, activating a series of flutes that will play through the night.  The site is also tied into a calendar system, such that lights glow brighter on the winter solstice, adding warmth to the long, cold night, and promising longer days to come.


This being mentioned, other environmental factors are much less predictable, and add melodic lines on top of the rhythm of the Sun.  All the human senses are relevant in thinking about this design.  Aeolian (wind) harps are positioned bordering the access paths on either end of the structure.  When the strings of these harps vibrate in the wind, they produce a loud drone, a zone of energy that one must pass through on the way to the central sanctuary.  This drone is arguably the most effective way to separate the acoustic experience of the visitors from the sounds of the city.


Additionally, using technology, one can transform cycles from one form of energy to another.  For example, sunlight can become sound that changes with times of day, seasons, and weather conditions.  A singer’s music can be turned into the glow of lights that ripple through the site.  The wind passing over the site can cause a slight glowing of the walls, like blowing on hot coals.  These effects would not be possible if we did not live in the modern technological age.


This is a structure that is indistinguishable from wild nature (just as nature is to be indistinguishable from the structure).  Nature follows logic and rules, but because it is infinitely complex, it holds infinite mystery, even to the most discerning eye.  Why can’t a structure be the same way?  The argument is not for a replication of the wild, but rather something that blurs the boundaries between human and wild.  All of humanity has always been part of the wild, and because anything in the physical world is infinitely complex, our structures have always contained great mysteries.  In modern civilization, however, we do not feel as if we are part of this larger system.  That is where this design comes into play.


This space of contemplation becomes a place where people and nature are one, and people revel in the mutual experience of giving to an environment and also receiving from it.  Of course, how does one actually do this?


One important factor in designing the space of contemplation is how one draws on a framework of the wild (of physics, astronomy, and biological systems) as a jumping-off point for design, thus the earth rhythms described above.  The design need not be completely reactionary.  The design is a two-way conversation between the universe and the human.  The universe provides, the human reacts, the universe reacts, the human provides.  The following is a list of examples of some of the many environmental factors that the Charles River design would draw upon.  Some of these elements are predetermined by the environment, and others could only exist with human intervention.  They are called “musical elements” because one can look at nature as a magnificent, eternal, ever-modulating symphony.  These musical themes can appear in different forms throughout the composition, but do not exist in the same form in any two places.  They may be similar, but are still different.  These musical elements are also determined by the designer.  They can be related to any of the five senses.  While the composition draws upon systems of nature, it is the responsibility of the designer to determine how to work with the system.


By integrating various systems in feedback loops, another level of complexity may be added to the design.  Individual variables exist, and these variables are not only dependent on the environment but on reactions to each other.  This is in some ways a recreation of a biological system, which will allow for infinite variations.


The Musical Experience


Perhaps it is easiest to think of the experience of moving through the structure as a piece of music.  There is an exposition, themes and variations, rising action, a climax, and a tapered fin.  This piece of music is unique in that it incorporates all of the senses, and also exists as a physical space that one may move through.  The experience of the piece of music varies from person to person, depending on both the path taken through the site, and the time of day, season, weather, etc.


The beginning of this piece of music starts in the urban areas surrounding the Charles River, specifically the Back Bay and Memorial Drive/Massachusetts Ave.  An aeolian (wind) harp begins its solo, gradually growing in size and intensity as one approaches the river.  This is done through both increasing the number of strings and also by the fact that the wind is stronger along the river.  This is an electric aeolian harp, built on the same principle of an electric guitar.  The advantage of an electric aeolian harp is that it can be tied into the computer sensor system of the site.


One is drawn towards a path, made of semi-reflective glass, which seems to hover over the river.  It gently touches the shore, then slides into a canyon created by the convergence of two aeolian harp walls.  This path just happens to occur along the line of the summer solstice (sunset)/winter solstice (sunrise).  The area between the aeolian harps is a zone of energy.  This sound drowns out the noises of the city streets, easing the shift from city to river.  The intensity of the drone depends on multiple variables, the most important being wind speed (the stronger the wind, the louder the sound).  Additionally, the aeolian harp will react to loud noises in the environment, including passing cars, horns, and booms from thunderstorms.  Finally, because this is an electric aeolian harp that is tied to software, sensors react to nearby people and can alter the sound of the harp accordingly.  The path itself varies in width, from just enough for two people up to perhaps 30 feet (places to stop and absorb the sound of the harps).  Gradually, glass “trees,” also made of semi-transparent, semi-reflective glass, begin to appear, growing above the pathway, and reflecting the blue of the water and the sky.  As one travels onward, the number of “trees” becomes denser, surrounding and bathing the visitor in bright, clean energy.


As one approaches the center of the river, the strings of the harps begin to disperse in various directions throughout the site.  This marks a transition from the pure energy of the exposition to more dispersed, relaxed, nuanced energy.  One enters the “forest.”  The glass trees become denser, but taller.  Because the glass “leaves” of the tree constantly rotate in the wind, they are an indication of the wind passing over the site and also create an infinitude of reflections between water, sky, and pathway.  At this point, one also starts to notice the inclusion of biological elements interspersed with the human-produced materials.  At first, there are just patches of grass and moss, and then larger grasses, narrow meadows, bamboo, and even some smaller trees.  By this point, the drone of the aeolian harps has faded to a dull hum in the background, an underlying keynote on top of which the rest of the music occurs.  The hiss of the wind becomes more apparent, as there are walls that act as wind breaks made of thousands of pieces of metal that rotate in the wind, also reflecting light and generating electricity.  At night, this electricity can be converted into energy to power lights in the site.  Light intensity will vary directly with wind intensity.  During the day, the electricity can be used for sonic purposes.


As one leaves the zone of the aeolian harp, the path spreads out through the water, branching and asking the visitor to move freely and at his or her own whim.  Pathways vary in size from as small as 2 feet to 6 or 8 feet.  By following a less obvious path, the visitor can isolate him or herself and contemplate without disturbance.  The surface that the visitor is walking on has give to it; it is floating on the water, anchored firmly in place, but allowed to bounce slightly with each step.  The pathway has become broken into many of these floating islands.  Some are large and wide; others long and narrow.  Narrow ones naturally imply circulation, especially for the individual traveler.  Squarer ones and dead-ends imply a place to pause and are enhanced with a greater density of sensors, making the space more responsive to the user and enhancing the interaction between the user and environment.  Finally, some are only accessible during the winter, when the river surface freezes.


The center of the site is a zone of intersection between many different site elements.  It is the intersection of the “forest,” the “solstice organ,” and the “piers.”  It is a hybrid zone incorporating both mechanical and biological elements.  It is both the densest and the most open part of the site (in terms of the “lily pads,” these are very large, allowing for multiple visitors to occupy them at once, but there are also numerous wind flutes and bamboo shoots that obscure quick, direct movement.  This is one of the climaxes of the musical piece.  The visitor has completely forgotten about the city surrounding the site.  To the extremities of the site are pathways that seem to extend to infinity, separating those individuals who wish to be alone.  Reaching the end of one of these “piers,” the pathway widens just slightly, creating a stopping space in which one may enjoy relative silence.  At night, if one sings or plays a musical instrument in this location, the glass walls around the player will light up, as well as LEDs built into the glass where the player is standing.  Additionally, as wind passes over the site, the walls will glow ever so slightly, like blowing on hot coals.


Leaving the center of the forest, the visitor walks out to then end of one of the elongated “piers” (although called a pier, made up of elongated floating units).  The longest pier is nearly 1/4 mile long.  This is a journey of increasing silence, surrounded by the wind, with the drone of the aeolian harp far in the distance.  As one nears the end of the pier, the structure is increasingly responsive to the visitor, and another grove of wind flutes appears.  The city is now fully visible, and the visitor is exposed yet extremely secluded.  This is a point of reflection.  One may spend hours or even days sitting out at this point.  A musician may find this the perfect location to play the flute (or any number of instruments).


Effects as a result of music or other human interaction occur anywhere in the site, but as hinted at earlier, some areas of this have more sensors, or “nerves,” making them more sensitive, and the ends of the “piers” is one area of increased sensitivity.  If one were to look at the site nerve map, there would be nerve endings everywhere, with some areas extremely dense, especially in stopping places, in corners along the aeolian zone (where one can interact with the electric aeolian harp and cause it to change in response to movement), and in the center of the site.


Whenever a visitor is ready to depart from this reflection point, he or she will return through the site, and out through either of the energy-filled pathways leading to the city.  The site will be able to detect which way a person is walking, and adjust the experience accordingly, such that the piece of music gradually tapers to a peaceful niente.



[1]                  John O’Donohue on “The Inner Landscape of Beauty,” Speaking of Faith, NPR 2/28/2008, interview with Krista Tippett

[2]                  Schafer, R. (1994). The soundscape : Our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. Rochester, Vt. : [United States]: Destiny Books ; Distributed to the book trade in the United States by American International Distribution. 43.

[3]                  Schafer, 43

[4]                  ibid.

[5]                  ibid.

[6]                  ibid.

[7]                  ibid., 258

[8]                  ibid., 252

[9]                  ibid., 258