Excerpts from an interview with Volume, March 2010.

Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, Michelle Addington, now a professor at the Yale School of Architecture, approaches the field of architecture through the application and manipulation of technologies in terms of discrete environmental systems. Arguing against the corralling of forms and ideas into fixed stations, Addington proposes that, similar to work she was doing at NASA in the late seventies and early eighties, architects should approach their practice as the development of malleable, passing events – that which is material though not necessarily visible. Addington recently co-authored Smart Materials and Technologies for the Architecture and Design Professions (Architectural Press, 2005).

“We are learning how to have abstract conceptions of an environment no longer defined by straightforward output. I think we’re getting closer – through digital models that embed transience – but not fast enough. Technological development starts as a discrete phenomenon or single property. Then, the pushback follows. We, as a profession, are the wrong ones to be deciding what property we need; this is how we have been frozen. We should be generating the proof of concept, by testing and pushing back. Our way of exploring and understanding will open up ideas beyond the normative sequence of technological development, which is parsed down and atomized. The first step is to accept that the existing building, even the new building, is a dumb armature. The building itself becomes dumber, and cheaper and more of a commodity as we are able to focus on changeable and interchangeable technologies.”

“We also need to stop zealously guarding our territory. The more we try to maintain control over it, the more it continues to shrink. Ours is one of the few fields in which the profession (Architect) completely circumscribes the discipline (Architecture). Our desire to have everything defined by professional practice, as opposed to a disciplinary canon, is becoming obsolete.”

“An intelligent environment might no longer be an environment; it might be a set of autonomous and transient and discrete responses that will happen once and disappear. We need to get comfortable with the body as the entity that negotiates with our surroundings. That is our new baseline. That’s an architectural question – it won’t come up in neurobiology or physics or engineering.”

“The mode we should be working in? I don’t know yet. It’s tragic that the kind of open-ended imaginative thinking that I remember from thirty years ago when I was at NASA is pretty much restricted to the military now, to the Defense Advanced Researched Projects Agency (DARPA). Things they are doing with the human body are particularly interesting – it’s open-ended but designed to be implemented soon. This is something that I wish we, as architects, could get ourselves a little bit more involved in.”

The Milan Breakfasts