A brief mention needs to be made of the deceptively playful devices, stripped of direct human control, being exploited today as kinetic spectacles by some architects. Admittedly, some of these monstrous machines are hypnotic to watch, but their operation has been programmed beforehand and is powered by electric, rather than human, energy. Personal action is shrivelled down to the flick of a switch, and the kinetic change is a fixed performance arranged in advance. Among the most impressive of these enormous automata are the contrived theatrics of Santiago Calatrava, which reduce the observer to a passive spectator who can only marvel from afar at the pre-engineered performance.
The most mind-expanding of the past century’s machine decorating has remained unbuilt, above all Cedric Price’s pioneering Fun Palace, which has since developed into an annual celebration of arts and science in East London. The steel structure of this remarkable invention forms the scaffold for a kit of prefabricated walls, ceilings, pivoting escalators and modular stairs to be moved about and assembled or disassembled by a travelling gantry and cranes, permitting improvised spaces to come and go, whose playful adaptations have the appeal of a great erector set but make us forget the slow and groaning technology needed to implement change. The underlying notion that decorating could be a flexible interactive structure, rather than a fixed unresponsive one, continued in his Potteries Thinkbelt project, which utilized railway cars on derelict tracks for a mobile university in Staffordshire.
Emerging from Price’s exuberant vision was the imaginary ‘Plug-in City’ of Sir Peter Cook and Archigram, with its adaptable, interchangeable units. This was followed a decade later by Price’s most famous offspring, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, whose bolted-on elements and partitions can be moved and repositioned according to varying activities. But in all these impermanent structures, it is well to remember that basically they are form-shifting industrial machines, employing superhuman technologies to put colossal things into motion with an equally superhuman display of mobile power, the latter so sluggish we can barely follow it. The mobile spectacle, whose effects are controlled by hidden mechanisms and designated operators, or more impersonally by remote switch, is stripped of any visible link to human initiative. But even if this link was visible, we should not forget that the hand or trigger is never our own.56
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Unlike Price’s joyful kinetics, whose inner workings are essentially transparent and fully displayed, subsequent generations of kinetic theatrics tend to conceal the power behind their own sensational mutations, or worse, envision absurd and histrionic machines that seem to be striving to not only mirror, but also celebrate the loss of self in a cybernetic society and dystopian world of science fiction. These mobile contraptions convey dark futuristic narratives, a nightmarish world of machines that are out of control and now control us. We should bear in mind here the cautionary words of philosopher Martin Heidegger: ‘We will, as we say, “get” technology “spiritually in hand”. We will master it. The will to master becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control.’57
Home Design’s most humanely responsive kinetics are not spectacular but inherently modest, being small and light enough for people to immediately guide and control them with their hands. These improvisational elements are generally placed at critical boundaries and thresholds of buildings, where they can exert great influence over a room and its relation to neighbouring space and the outdoors. The mutations make it possible for people to instantly connect or separate adjoining realms, finely tune the desired balance of refuge and outlook, or nuance the flow of light and sound, temperature and smell. The chance to regulate so many important qualities invests people with real power to take actions worth making, and to do this at once through the force of their own imaginations and bodies – and, more generally, retain some control over part of a world that is largely determined in advance.
For the richest culture of modulation we must turn to the traditional decorating of Japan, where an extraordinary repertoire of mobile parts evolved over centuries that permit nearly infinite modifications of mood and space. By layering rather simple panels, diverse in permeability and function, it became possible to subtly regulate daylight, privacy, contact with nature and protection from the weather. Fundamental to this mutability is a manageable size and weight of panels, allowing a single person to easily slide or rotate each of many related units, and often remove and place them out of the way in a storage cabinet. Equally crucial is the fine carpentry of tracks in the floor, into which panels fit perfectly and glide quietly, turning the simplest pull of a screen into a graceful and pleasing action.