Interviews

Published on January 30th, 2014 | by Chris Campbell

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Music is Math: Blueprints From a Kaleidoscopic Mind

I was very fortunate to get to chat with Sophia Chang, a trailblazing architect whose designs reframe people and their context in very unusual ways.

All images are by Sophia Chang unless noted otherwise.

CC: In your installation pictured above, Suspense, you soften the geometries of a house’s interior. It became an enigmatic, cave-like space full of wormholes and mystery. Can you describe what a person undergoes as they traverse the space? And what the project is all about?

SC: What was most powerful about the experience of making, and exhibiting, these installations was the fact that people experienced the project as it was intended – without me ever directing, providing description, or playing tour guide. The experience is best described through the words of visitors to the gallery:

“The first step into the gallery is one of the most exciting moments within the exhibit. It is the first time you experience the stretching of the soft fabric in contrast to the cold touch of the polished concrete…neither of which could be completely made out from a visual standpoint.”

“At first when we arrived at the front door I was puzzled, not fully understanding what or why it was, but then after taking my first steps inside and being fully immersed in this fabric, I became more and more curious. It was this maze that caused me to want to explore further.” “One of the more overwhelming feelings within the space was a sense of being lost, especially within the initial procession. One might ask how you feel lost in such a small gallery space… Sophia [induced] this feeling of being lost without creating a sense of fear…” “I almost enjoyed standing in the poche and watching other people move through the fabric more than moving through it myself. It was a very alienating experience, but at the same time almost comforting.”

CC: ‘Suspense’ seemed to elicit a strange, second-guessing sensation from its explorers. What’s behind this feeling? What causes it?

SC: The coding and decoding of environments has been completely natural to the way we sense and understand our world. We’re even in tune with the materials and shape of a space through the way sound reverberates around a room.

Suspense pushes the limits of how we decode our surroundings; the project adds something bizarre while leaving portals back to views of normal elements.

To continue the sound analogy, Suspense is a bit like those incredible experiments where people are asked to stand in a room with their eyes closed and just listen to sounds, which are spatialized to make them seem as if they are in all different sorts of spaces. The people know they are in a regular room, but when all of a sudden the audio shifts to sound as if the floor has dropped away, and they are dropping down above a busy street, a physical reaction occurs – rebalancing, or pulling back to safety.

Image by whereiscleo.

CC: Why do unique constructs ensnare our curiosity?

SC: We don’t generally have to stop to think about whether we are looking at a house, an office building, or restaurant. There is, however, one place I spent a lot of time in that looks a bit like a house, but maybe a store, or maybe an office. People walking by would stop and stare. Groups of friends would stop to point and ask each other what they thought was inside.

The furniture and fireplace visible from the street were domestic, while the windows were storefront glass, but it didn’t really look like either, and there was a business sign, so perhaps it was an office, but why was it set back so far from the street?

The reactions were great. This mix of visual signals created a bit of a mystery that made people stop, think, and for a moment not take for granted all of the typical visual cues and our instinctual interpretations.

Above is the Vanna Venturi House, which has exaggerated semblances of being a house, but a house where something else is obviously going on. Image by Knapp Masonry.

CC: You mentioned visual cues, and a portion of your work deals with how screen environments have become integral to the way we all function. How do you diagram the kinship between human consciousness and technology?

SC: The decoding of physical space comes instinctively, but nowadays we experience a lot more than just what is physically around us. Our environments are also increasingly composed of the world we see through mobile devices and computers.

Our world becomes open and reaches much further than what we can physically touch. This is a mediated environment. Everything we see is quite literally ‘coded.’ C++, JavaScript, Java, Python, and Ruby are just a few of the programming languages that create much of what we experience.

They are also languages that are not intuitive, and that users do not know. But, they create visuals that we are able to use intuitively so we forget about the mediation.

In contrast to the mediated environments of today, this very early computing device is an example of a tangible interface. Image by bradmohr.

CC: How have these mediated environments affected architecture?

SC: So far the most common updates to buildings basically turn architecture into a screen holder: massive screen walls, projections, built in ipad docks. Architecture is about engaging with the way people live, and part of life today is all the stuff happening behind screens.

The opportunity not being used fully is existing technology, which can allow translation between these coded environments that typically exist behind screens and our physical world.

To be honest, I’m not really sure what that means for architecture, but it’s one of the reasons I’ve been so interested in interactive installations where this translation happens. It’s why I pursue projects like the Soundfield. Even though others would automatically classify my installations as art, when I make installations I’m actually thinking very hard about architecture.

CC: Do you think technological advance is alienating, or empowering?

SC: Technology is absolutely empowering. Talking about all the ways it has empowered and enabled would fill a library! Just looking at the projects we’re speaking about today, I can say without a doubt that they were made possible through technology.

A month before Suspense’s final construction I had no idea how to sew, no idea how to wire a speaker (let alone 90), no funds. Just having the resources available to easily find and absorb an incredibly broad base of knowledge gave me the ability to take a few ideas and translate them into reality.

CC: We’ll get to Soundfield in a sec. But before we do, what kind of a kid were you? How did your creativity sprout?

SC: I had a hobby of collecting images and using the walls of my room as the collecting surface, which is not uncommon. But, I wasn’t interested in pictures of cute animals, princesses, cartoon characters or any other media icons. Someone once gave me a movie poster, and I put it up in the back of my closet because I didn’t actually want to look at it all the time – even though it was one of my favorite films.

One of my favorite things to collect were advertisements, which are designed to have super catchy imagery. I’d remove the logos and brand names from them so I was just left with brain-teasing images without any resolution or selling points.

In a way, I avoided wallpapering my room with consumerist images by using a tool of consumerism itself. Of course, I didn’t think about it that way at the time. Some of the images I collected were also things that teased my own memories without being related to my actual life events. I liked associations. My room was a mess to everyone else looking, but it was a little mind playground for myself.

Image by Volkswagen, Estación Diseño.

CC: Soundfield. It is a 6 x 8 array of tall metal cylinders that track a person’s movement and emit auditory barriers accordingly. Other sound installations merely trigger ambient sounds, but in your installation sound is used to construct actual boundaries. Can you explain how this works?

SC: For a long time, I’ve been interested in the idea of having people navigate space purely through sound. Sound can have more friction through dissonance; it can be harmonious and smooth, or agitate and create a feeling of urgency. Sound Field was a first, and extremely basic experiment for that idea.

There were multiple speakers located at the base of each of the columns. The sound traveled up the hollow of the columns and was tuned to only be heard if someone passed by that specific column. So, the sound became spatialized, rather than being spread uniformly throughout.

CC: What’s it like going through? And what kind of response did it get?

SC: The walls sometimes define corridors; sometimes they contain a room full of melodic sound. I found that most people were very much in a hurry, and just walked in a straight line through the piece, producing a rapid mix of sound, before moving onwards with their busy life.

Later, I programmed the piece to be more jarring the faster one moved, or to have more walls perpendicular to the direction of movement in order to try to encourage or perhaps shock people into slowing down, haha.

 

 

CC: And those that remained longer, what were their experiences like?

SC: Once they understood that there were walls of dissonance, visitors would try to walk along the wall, looking for openings or trying to find the areas of pleasing harmony. Upon hitting a wall, people would step back and try different routes.

Because it was all invisible to sight, the columns became a grid for orientation. People became intensely focused on how they were moving and what they heard as they tried to figure out what was going on around them.

//

Sophia Chang’s kaleidoscopic mind translates architecture into social experiment. Who can guess where her ideas will take her next? If her stuff has kindled your curiosity, keep any eye on her evolution here. And her photography is stellar too.

 

 

Music is Math: Blueprints From a Kaleidoscopic Mind
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About the Author

I live on an island floating in the Puget Sound, a stone's throw from downtown Seattle. I am keenly interested in nature, mysticism, the cosmos, futurism, existentialism, nihilism, kitsch, satire, and miscellaneous whimsy.



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