XXVII.2 March - April 2020
Page: 72
Digital Citation

Interaction and architecture is dead. Long live architectural interactivity!

Mikael Wiberg

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In 2015, I initiated this forum, devoted to understanding and exploring the intersection of interaction and architecture. Lots of things have happened since then. Not only do we have more examples of how these two strands are increasingly intertwined, in practice and in research, but we also have new technologies in place (including IoT, 5G, and AI) that enable new forms of embedded, ambient, and intelligent computing in the built environment.

back to top  Insights


In addition to having central heating systems, ventilation systems, and electricity, buildings today are also equipped with computers, networks, and sensor technologies. Today's environments are increasingly digitized, and potentially interactive.

Over the past five years, we have seen how the tech industry has launched new digital platforms and devices that enable new forms of architecture. We have also seen changes in the landscape of interaction through the adoption of systems that enable new forms of interactivity—we now talk to devices, and we expect technology to listen to, track, and follow us. We are also increasingly expecting every "thing" to be networked, as well as accessible from our mobile devices. From simple household appliances, to smart window blinds, to the automatic garage door, we expect that "there's an app for that." In short, our expectations on architectural interactivity have increased.

As this transition steadily moves forward, I see the current moment as a chance to simultaneously close the book and at the same time begin another chapter. As in the classic saying, "The king is dead. Long live the king!"

Along these lines, I will use this article as the final piece for the Interaction and Architecture forum. I will also use it to set the stage for moving the conversation forward. We have seen only the beginning of this contemporary development—not least in how it changes our understanding of architecture, and what it in return means for computer-enabled interactions.

back to top  Architecture and Interaction—Two Different Animals?

I initiated this forum five years ago with an article called "Interaction Design Meets Architectural Thinking" [1]. I saw opportunities for crossovers between these two design-oriented fields, in terms of understanding and reimagining architecture through an interactivity lens, but also to get a more in-depth understanding of what embedded computing in our built environment could offer. Further, I saw opportunities in the wake of a movement toward embedded computers in objects, things, and buildings, and I saw signs of a growing field devoted to understanding and exploring human-building interaction.

My thinking on these matters was also fueled by observations of how people increasingly adopt these technologies, and how the use of such systems helps in the reimagination, repurposing, and restructuring of our built environments. I was also keen to understand the transitions that follow from how we increasingly inhabit spaces, not just with new technologies, but also through the emergence of new interactive habits—that is, our everyday use of digital technologies in these spaces. In short, digital technologies give us the tools to reimagine, repurpose, and ultimately change spaces. Accordingly, I wanted to devote this forum to thinking on these matters.

When reviewing existing work in this area, I noticed that it kept these two animals apart. I found lots of work on architecture, while the HCI and interaction design archives provided a basis for considering interaction. For sure, there were some crossovers, some papers on interactive architecture, and some work on smart environments (see, for instance, Cook and Das [2] for an overview of this area), but it was hard to find a shared space devoted to the understanding of these two areas as one integrated area of study.

When I turned to architecture, I found literature on specific buildings and sites, and descriptions of famous architects (and the buildings to which they have given form). I also found more theoretical work, for example, the work by Henri Lefebvre [3] on the production of space. What is clear is that architecture has a long history of thinking that covers the relation between our built environment and the people who inhabit it, and that there is a whole philosophy developed around spaces, places, the built environment, and the different schools and epochs in classic architecture. Still, examples that focused on these aspects in relation to digital technologies were few.

Likewise, when I turned to interaction, I found lots of studies on human-computer interaction (HCI), but very little on the relation between HCI and architecture. I also noticed how the work on architecture framed the relation between buildings and people as spaces, as this void that physical structures enable (e.g., rooms), and how we as people inhabit and fill these spaces with meaning and activities (e.g., kitchen). HCI, on the other hand, focused not so much on being and inhabiting spaces, but rather more on the use and experiences from using technologies in different contexts.

So, was I facing two different animals here? It seemed to be different foci, different levels of analysis, different conceptual framings, and different objects of study. Could we even imagine ways of exploring this as one thing?

back to top  Building Bridges: Architecture as Interaction and Interaction as Architecture

There is a growing interest in transdisciplinarity in the HCI/UX community. In short, transdisciplinarity refers to a research strategy that crosses many disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach. Some people might argue that HCI is in fact a transdisciplinary field by nature, as it stretches across a wide set of areas including computer science, design, psychology, and informatics. In moving forward, would it be possible to think in a transdisciplinary way about interaction and architecture? Would it be possible to transcend, rather than bridge, the two areas?


For sure, we can continue to list the core differences between architecture and interaction. We can, for instance, talk about how buildings are stable, whereas interaction is dynamic; how we can inhabit a space, and how we use digital tools. However, it might be more fruitful to take a transdisciplinary approach that spans these issues.

Digital technologies are increasingly a landscape that we need to understand, navigate, inhabit, and use.

For instance, what if we think about architecture as interaction? Digital technologies, including social media platforms, are increasingly a landscape that we need to understand, navigate, inhabit, and use. Increasingly these landscapes are heavily intertwined with our physical world—from simple check-ins to the background tracking of where we are, where we go, and what we do. And also the other way around: What if we think about interaction as architecture?

With AI, we have systems that listen to our interactions with technology. Through our interactions, these systems collect data about how we interact, and they generate models for further interactions based on our interactions. For instance, when I get in front of the steering wheel in my car, my phone immediately recognizes that I am sitting there, and based on previous journeys suggests that I should take a particular route home (although I have never explicitly asked the navigation system in the car to tell me this, nor explicitly stated that I am going home). Here it is my previous interactions that generate these suggestions for how to navigate physical space. Our use leads to habits, and our habits set the scene for how we might interact. In short, our habits form the preconditions for interaction.


back to top  Architecture and Interaction—One Focus, But Still Many Bridges

Based on this unified understanding of how interaction and architecture are increasingly entangled, we have over the past five years explored how to unify and make crossovers between these strands through a multitude of perspectives, cases, and concepts.

A focus on architectural interactivity might work as a lens for the further exploration of the production of new social places.

In 2015, when we started this forum, we had a set of articles that addressed interaction and architecture at different scales, and how places were also tightly tied to social practices. In 2016 we moved on, and through a couple of articles, we covered the relationship between this area, data, and information, and how interaction and architecture was ultimately about the architecting of information. With that as a point of departure, we explored the notion of architectonic interaction. In 2017 we extended this perspective to questions of how interactive environments might also scaffold our thinking. We also dwelled on questions of what the notion of intelligent environments covers, and how we as humans are part of these new technology-enabled sites. In 2018, we related the development in this area to questions concerning how our connected homes are formed, and we covered how architecture has also served as a model for the development of digital environments, not least in the area of game design. Finally, in 2019 we returned to the current developments in practice. We refueled the discussion on scale in relation to architecture and interactive systems design, and we presented sketches and grounds for a research program on human-building interaction that was further elaborated on in a ToCHI special issue [4] on HBI—human-building interaction.

Architecture and interaction are indeed no longer two separate units in search of each other. From a conceptual standpoint, however, we have been quite focused on the development of bridging notions as they seek to combine aspects of computing or interaction with aspects of architecture. Over these past five years, we have for instance worked on notions such as human-building interaction, adaptive architecture, intelligent environments, smart buildings, media architectures, and ambient spaces, to mention just a few of the areas that work as bridges across interaction and architecture. The positive thing is that all these notions make the connections between interaction and architecture explicit. However, the downside is that each area at the same time upholds a distinction between the two. So how can we move beyond making any categorical distinctions between them?

back to top  Moving Forward — The Materiality of Architectural Interactivity

Materiality is a growing perspective in HCI. A focus on the materiality of interaction is about understanding interaction and the materials that enable and are produced through interactions [5]. Materiality reaches across our physical and digital world and shifts our focus from any such categorical distinction, focusing on entangled practices where people, technology, and materials come together through our experiences of the world. In short, materiality offers a lens for understanding entangled matters as one inseparable unit of analysis.

In our striving to further explore the area of interaction and architecture, I propose the following as a conceptual foundation for moving forward: Rather than paying attention to how interaction and architecture are different, we could instead shift our focus to the world produced when both are fundamentally intertwined. Then we might find an alternative ground for further explorations. As formulated by Sengers et. al. [6] this is also crucial—in theory and in practice:

Imagine a world without architects, where only engineers construct buildings. With a keen eye toward functionality, these engineers would make sure the buildings were sound, but something would be lacking. People would miss the richness of architecture—the designed connection to their lives, history, and culture [6].

To make a pastiche of this quote, so as to reflect on what it would be like if we failed to integrate the two, one might think about this along these lines:

Imagine a world where architecture and interaction were forever kept apart. Where architects designed our built environment, and interaction designers designed our digital life worlds. These two worlds would be sound, but something would be lacking. People would miss the richness of an integrated lifeworld—the designed connection that works across the physical and the digital, and our lives, history, and culture.

As a perspective for moving forward, I propose the notion of architectural interactivity. In this context, architectural interactivity refers to interaction with our built environment (including interactive systems). It's a perspective that highlights the interactive dimensions of our built environments, and how they relate to people living, dwelling, and interacting in them. At the current moment, we inhabit built environments where digital technologies not only occupy space but also actively work for us in the production of new social places. Here, a focus on architectural interactivity might work as a lens for the further exploration of the production of new social places—and further, how such spaces are imagined, enabled, and manifested through the design, development, use, and adoption of new interactive technologies in our built environment.

back to top  Concluding Reflection

There are many challenges in front of us when it comes to this area, stretching from global climate challenges to privacy and integrity concerns for individuals. Across this scale, technology is part of the problem—but maybe also part of a solution?

What we do know is that developments in interaction and architecture have probably become irreversible—and that in itself calls for further work in this area. Just look at other systems that are now fundamentally integrated into the functionality, as well as our expectations, of what buildings offer (including, for instance, electricity and plumbing). Over time, systems become part of our perception of our built environment, and part of practice.

In this article I have marked the end of the Interaction and Architecture forum. At the same time, I have pointed toward the future. I have done so by revisiting the topics that we have covered in this forum over the past five years, and I have proposed a unifying perspective for moving forward. In short:

Interaction and Architecture is dead. Long live Architectural Interactivity!

back to top  References

1. Wiberg, M. Interaction design meets architectural thinking. Interactions 22, 2 (2015), 60–63.

2. Cook, D. and Das, S. Smart Environments—Technology, Protocols, and Applications. Wiley, 2005.

3. Lefebvre, H. The Production of Space. D. Nicholson-Smith, trans. Blackwell, Oxford, 1991.

4. Alavi, H., Churchill, E., Wiberg, M., Lalanne, D., Dalsgaard, P., Schieck, A., and Rogers, Y. Introduction to human-building interaction (HBI): Interfacing HCI with architecture and urban design. ACM Trans. on Computer-Human Interaction 26, 2 (2019), 6.

5. Wiberg, M. The Materiality of Interaction. MIT Press, 2018.

6. Sengers, P., Kaye, J., Boehner, K., Fairbank, J., Gay, G., Medynskiy, Y., and Wyche, S. Culturally embedded computing. Pervasive Computing (Jan.–Mar. 2004).

back to top  Author

Mikael Wiberg is a full professor in informatics at Umeå University, Sweden. Wiberg's main work is within the areas of interactivity, mobility, materiality, and architecture. He is a co-editor in chief of ACM Interactions, and his most recently published book is The Materiality of Interaction: Notes on the Materials of Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018). [email protected]

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