The London-based architect and artist Usman Haque designs interactive architectural systems and is interested in the ways that people relate to each other and to their surrounding space. He develops both physical spaces and the software and systems that bring them to life. In other words, these systems based on the software's algorithms fulfil several functions: the detection of a position in space, of a sound, of an odour, of the temperature, of a cellular phone, etc. Architecture is here conceived as an "operating system." He has also created interactive installations, environments with projections, digital interfaces, choreographic performances and works for computer. Former partner of Josephine Pletts, with whom he founded the Pletts Haque architecture firm, he presently teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, England. His installations have been exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London), the Hillside Gallery (Tokyo), the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Tokyo) and the Plymouth Arts Centre (Plymouth). His interactive and telecommunications projects have been published in several magazines and journals including The Architects' Journal, Artifice, Wallpaper, Wired Online, WebMaster magazine, .net magazine, Architectural Design, Zdnet
, and the RIBA Journal
. In 2004, the Japan Media Arts Festival
awarded him the Excellence Prize in the Art category for his project Sky Ear
"Where is the poetry in a technology that only promotes rationality, literalness and verisimilitude?" (1)
In response to this query Usman Haque has developed a practice which revolves around two concepts of his own invention: “hardspace” and “softspace”.
Architecture has traditionally been understood as those physical, static objects (the hardspace) that make up our environments, and enclose us, like walls, roofs and floors. Can architecture be conceived of in a different way? Haque does so by proposing an architecture that does not shy away from the pleasure of the senses (the softspace). According to him, the "delight" in architecture comes from the non-tangible, non-physical "stuff" in between: the sounds, the smells, the heat, the colors—and in the project supported by the foundation—even the radio waves. If softspace encourages people to become performers within their own environments, then hardspace provides a framework to animate these interactions: it is up to architecture to design systems that integrate the two.
"The new language of architecture would have to entice each of the five senses, because each culture understands space in a different way, using a different combination of the senses." (2)
This quote can be read as the premise of Usman Haque's practice. In fact, his approach is phenomenological as his different projects clearly demonstrate. (3)
For example, Scents of Space
(2002), created in collaboration with Josephine Pletts and Dr Luca Turin, is an interactive installation, which diffuses smells. When the visitor enters the space he experiences carefully controlled zones of fragrance that define and demarcate areas of space without physical boundaries. Each of the smells can be precisely located making it possible for the visitor to encounter new smells as he moves, horizontally or vertically, through the interactive zone. The smells are diffused in response to the visitors' movements and they travel in a straight line until the visitors choose to mix the smells with the movements of their bodies. Furthermore, since the visitors' movements intersect new smells are created. The study of the human olfactory system has shown that smells can modify our perception and evoke memories. With Scents of Smell
, Usman Haque posits that if an architectural space could be precisely "tuned" with scents, it would be possible to create completely new ways of experiencing, controlling and interacting with space.
Infinitum Ad Nauseam
is a video/audio installation which requires the explicit participation of the audience. The system uses video and audio feedback to create sounds (from images and movements) and images (from sounds and movements). The projected images and amplified sounds are dependent on the sounds and movements of the visitor. This creates dynamic real-time images and sounds in "conversation" with the visitors. What is of foremost interest for the artist, in this installation and most of his other projects, is the notion of the visitor as performer who is caught up in a form of exchange and circularity, as well as the unstable equilibriums of video and audio feedback, the potential of which has been brilliantly explored by video pioneers (notably Steina and Woody Vasulka).
These brief descriptions nevertheless allow one to comprehend the meaning of his practice that is reflected in this desire to explore the increasingly tenuous border between art and architecture, and to invite the public to participate in this reflection.