The phenomenological boundary

Missing from many of these efforts is the understanding of how boundaries physically behave. The definition of boundary that people typically accept is one similar to that offered by the Oxford English Dictionary: a real or notional line marking the limits of an area. As such, the boundary is static and defined, and its requirement for legibility (marking) prescribes that it is a tangible barrier – thus a visual artifact.

For physicists, however, the boundary is not a thing, but an action. Environments are understood as energy fields, and the boundary operates as the transitional zone between different states of an energy field. As such, it is a place of change as an environment’s energy field transitions from a high-energy to
low-energy state or from one form of energy to another.

Boundaries are therefore, by definition, active zones of mediation rather than of delineation. We can’t see them, nor can we draw them as known objects fixed to a location. Breaking the paradigm of the hegemonic ‘material as visual artifact’ requires that we invert our thinking; rather than simply visualizing the end result, we need to imagine the transformative actions and interactions.

What was once a blue wall could be simulated by a web of tiny color-changing points that respond to the position of the viewer as well as to the location of the sun. Large HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) systems could be replaced with discretely located micro-machines that respond directly to the heat exchange of a human body. In addition, by investigating the transient behavior of the material, we challenge the privileging of the static planar surface.
The ‘boundary’ is no longer delimited by the material surface, instead it may be reconfigured as the zone in which change occurs. The image of the building boundary as the demarcation between two different environments defined as single states – a homogeneous
interior and an ambient exterior – could possibly be replaced by the idea of multiple energy environments fluidly interacting with the moving body. Smart materials, with their transient behavior and ability to respond to energy stimuli, may eventually enable the selective creation and design of an individual’s sensory  experiences.Are architects in a position or state of development to implement and exploit this alternative paradigm, or, at the very least, to rigorously explore it? At this point, the answer is most probably no, but there are seeds of opportunity from on-going physical research and glimpses of the future use of
the technology from other design fields. Advances in physics have led to a new understanding of physical phenomena, advances in biology and neurology have led to new discoveries regarding the human sensory system. Furthermore, smart materials have been comprehensively experimented with and rapidly adopted in many other fields – finding their way into products and uses as diverse as toys and automotive components.

Our charge is to examine the knowledge gained in other disciplines, but develop a framework for its application that is suited to the unique needs and possibilities of architecture.

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