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Interacting with the virtual

We need to interact with artificial ecologies if we are to acheive buildings and projects that satisfy all users - not just the humans

Information technology, particularly Virtual Reality software and hardware, is now allowing us to pair real events and spaces with virtual facsimiles and different alien spaces. These deformed, doppelganged domains do not adhere to the simple rules of actual space but are highly dynamic, fast, quantile and cinematic - just four of their infinite differences and qualities.

Much is to be gained from architectural partnerships between real and virtual objects; these objects may be either organic or inorganic.

Contemporary with the swift synthesis of virtual and actual spaces is a cultural imperative towards sustainability.

Superficially, the movement towards high-technology space appears at odds with notions of renewable resources and ideas of environmental impact. But sustainability does not have to imply Luddism. The key to speculating on the amalgamation of green aspirations for the construction of architectural space and the frenzied world of information 'blips' is to understand macro and micro ecology more fully.

We can create artificial ecologies that mesh with natural ecologies and augment each other symbiotically. One might say this is a simple idea and that any sustainable architecture does exactly this. What is different is the intelligence that can be used to respond to events, the dexterity of that response, the scale of responses available and the transmission over huge distances that can be exploited in the right circumstances.

Many of our natural ecologies are 'torn' - that is they are functioning in a disabled way. The old territories of the barn owl, for example, are much depleted, due to lower numbers of trees, voles and mice because of changes to farming technologies and the use of dangerous chemicals on crops. The interrelation of processes, animals, and their food chains requires a fast, intelligent and far-seeing technology.

To pursue this new method of design we have to conceive of our architectures as ecologies of objects that are responsive to natural and artificial stimulus, that dwell on a variety of scales from the microscopic to the cosmic and occupy a disparate number of spacescapes. The old notion of the architectural site is unsustainable; ecologies have no respect for the shortsightedness of human land ownership and its stupid economics. We cannot continue positing architecture that comprises huge lumps of inert matter. Our new ecological architectures will manipulate and sense in all manners of terrains and wavelengths from infrared and ultra-violet to FM, X-ray and CATscan. We can give objects an infinite number of behavioural imperatives - to float, to reach the surface, to follow the red line or to find shade. We can create dormant objects or networks of objects that are suddenly triggered when an extreme phenomenon occurs like a flood, a hail storm, a drought or an oil slick. We can create objects that are food or lovers for other objects, succulent or seductive. We can create objects, ecologies and architecture that know their exact state and position every microsecond and maintain their equilibrium in an evermotile world.

In short we have the technological means to intervene in 'torn' ecologies, to reboot them or let more healthy ecologies be the initial stimulus for more recreational and surreal interactions with our architecture.

This may seem far-fetched but some people are already experimenting with these ecologies and scenarios. I will use Chris Groothuizen's trout project as an example.

This project is sited along the Glenarm river in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The river is a private fishery, which in recent years has seen a decline in the native population of brown trout. The project is an attempt to rectify this situation and to rejuvenate trout stocks. It was established that a decline in insect life, predominantly the ephemeroptera (mayfly), had led to a decline in fish stocks. A possible solution to this problem is to establish an ephemeroptera-breeding programme that works within the established ecosystem. Site one is the artificial lure, based on the most popular local fly pattern. The trout is attracted to the artificial lure and when the fish mouths the fly, it is tagged and, subsequently, with further contact, information such as weight, age, and diet can be downloaded from the target fish.

The second site is the 'collector'. The collector navigates within the river, harvesting nymphal-stage ephemeroptera for the breeding programme as a secondary function - its primary function is collecting the artificial flies.

The third site is the main propagating incubator system which gestates nymphs in response to the information on fluctuating needs of trout that it receives, and releases them either aquatically or fully mature into the air.

Although this is still a relatively simple artificial/natural, ecological/ architectural intervention, it becomes clear that the notion of creating architectures that are interdependent, fluid and ecologically beneficial has much potential. We are now beginning to see that the hybridisation of many disciplines such as landscape design, architecture, botany, biology and veterinary surgery among others is critical for designers. This integration is needed to achieve the knowledge of all the parameters and contexts necessary to make meaningful and considerate interventions into the landscape, architecural or otherwise.

What is also becoming clear is that our architectures must not just be tailored to human inhabitation but must be porous to a variety of different animals and biological systems, microclimates and flora.

The actors in our spatial plays can come from a variety of mostly inhuman genetic pools and will have very different criteria for what they might consider to be great architecture.

In the next Architech Neil Spiller will consider some more ramifications of the new technologised spacescape

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