Genome of the Built Environment: Measuring the Unseen

The built environment is one of the most fascinating yet enigmatic artifact of the human being. We perceive it as a complex entity resulting from the juxtaposition of spaces, flows, experiences, objects, and events. Each environment has certain qualities, and – even though shared characteristics do exist – those qualities vary from place to place. Although a variety of criteria, parameters, and indicators attempt to capture key figures of places, they are yet far from depicting the more qualitative aspects that constitute the real experiential character of built environments. And far less is known of the role of new media and digital tools in understanding these qualities.

Articulating criteria of investigation and speculating on the role of design technology, this course introduces the “Genome of the Built Environment” as a new paradigm of how we might understand the built environment. How we might perceive it, and thus evolve it. Putting the human being at the center and forefront, the class will investigate the role of new augmenting and responsive technologies in articulating, mapping, and exploiting the specificities of places through a multi-sensory approach. This research course will attempt to answer some basic but fundamental questions by utilizing new sensing tools to measure unseen qualities. Questions such as: What makes built environments differ from one another? What creates consistencies between different places? What is the impact of certain elements of cities in our state of mind?

The ‘beat’ or the pace is one characteristic that has been established trying to uniquely characterize cities by identifying a distinct pace to each of them. But what are the other new qualities that are measurable that help us understand cities in new and perhaps previously unexplored ways? This course aims to measure and elaborate on quantitative descriptions of ‘hidden’ characteristics, attempting to build correlations between different unseen but detectable qualities of the built environment – in addition to the ‘beat’ or the pace, the colors and tones, the mood of places, the agitation levels, the micro-climate, etc. Students will thus elaborate alternative methods, hack existing technologies, and device new tools to: a. measure and quantify qualities of the built environment; b. visualize them and make comparisons; c. extrapolate meaning; d. create correlations between those qualities and typologies of built environments.

This research course will feature a combination of readings, discussions, writing assignments, site visits, and measurements and mapping assignments. The course will be co-taught with REAL lab Research Associate Stefano Andreani and will host guests and collaborate with other labs such as the Langer Lab at Harvard WJH and Harvard CGA. The collective work of the class will be a publication that aims to offer designers new tools to understand the built environment for meaningful design interventions.