Much like the futuristic materials being conceived at MIT’s Self Assembly Lab, science fiction has long been speculating about technology of the future. The novels in Isaac Asimov’s Robot City series (originally published 1987 to 1995) are no exception, following the trend of increasing processing power and miniaturization to its logical conclusion and envisioning the development of a material in which highly advanced robotic intelligence is integrated at the molecular level along with the ability of the material to reconfigure itself on demand.
The result is Robot City, a “built” environment resulting from vast amounts of this intelligent material being instructed to form buildings and every bit of infrastructure required for a functioning city. This city is by no means static, constantly in flux according to the needs of the city, responding to the demands of development and the city’s inhabitants. Buildings and streets disappear and reform overnight, with the only constant being a more traditionally constructed “compass tower” that acts as the origin of the city.
The concept of an intelligent, self-re-forming material is particularly relevant to our thesis as it directly addresses the question of how form can respond in an ongoing fashion to continually shifting conditions. While described as virtually limitless in potential availability, versatility, and strength in the novels, even a very limited version of such a material would have huge consequences for the built environment and the role of the architect.
A technology like this fundamentally questions the definition of authorship, transforming it from an initial development to an ongoing process. Would the architect in this world be designing in a very generic sense, defining responses to typical scenarios (if this condition or requirement encountered, then build this or that)? Would it sideline the architect even more so than today’s Revit-based box developers are attempting to do? Or would it make the architect essential due to the effectively limitless sculptural possibilities that could result in a ridiculous mess otherwise? Or would it make us all architects, able to sculpt our environment on a daily basis?
The ideas behind this futuristic material will no doubt continue to influence our discussions and explorations. See the documentation for our initial presentation, formeta 0.9–we developed the final animation with Robot City in the back of our minds.