Professor Nat Chard
Professor, Department of Architecture
410 Architecture 2 Building
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Bird Automata Research Test Track
The work illustrated on this page touches on three issues in Professor Chard’s research, all bounded by the search for ways to draw and make an indeterminate architecture. What you see is a track along which bird automata enact flight (at the moment through representational stop animation, but in later versions the birds will be working automata), witnessed by researchers from two camera positions. A researcher tracks one of the birds in elevation, the other camera is sited at the end of the track watching the approaching birds. There is a stair cantilevered off the start of the track to allow access to set up the automata for a flight. The set-up learns from a group of late nineteenth century physiological research that blossomed with the development of photography, especially the work of Muybridge and Marey who studied how birds and other animals moved using various methods of chronophotography.

During the same era a number of physicists, criminologists as well as those studying paranormal and medical conditions were also using the emerging potential of photography to further their research. As with Marey and Muybridge, these researchers developed new sorts of architecture particular to the demands and opportunities of the medium and the way they were using. There are many research institutions that display the emergence of a new architecture with very little typological precedent. While these are normally highly determined, the way they develop provides helpful clues for Chard’s research. Typically, such research sites start with apparatus that has little regard to the site (other than perhaps aspect) and are generic. As the content and technology develop, an architecture emerges that is particular to both content and place. This is apparent in the instrumental buildings that support Marey and Muybridge’s work and is also evident in the NASA installations at Cape Canaveral that start with the portable launch equipment for appropriated German V2 rockets and proceeds with a collapsed archeology of space rocket launch site architecture that develops along the Cape Canaveral coastline. The launch sites become more specialised and elaborate, culminating in the Apollo/Space Shuttle launch sites, Vertical Assembly Building and the crawler that carries the spacecraft between them. A new architecture emerges from almost nothing.

The bird automata track is generic – the flight of the bird is straight and even in this first version – and it is not sited. Except for the seats for the camera operators and the access stair, the equipment is not yet architecture (or it does not provide for us in the way that architecture tends to). It is at the stage of being almost nothing. As the project develops, the content of the birds and their relationship to the researchers will require more from the site and the architecture. The model in the images is therefore the before architecture version, set out in advance of working out how the architecture will emerge. This will be played out partly through the latest version of Chard’s variable picture plane drawing instruments. A side effect of Chard’s natural history diorama research was the possibility of evoking the uncanny as a way of providing an intellectual uncertainty in things as a provocation for an indeterminate condition. Decadent fiction at the end of the nineteenth century inverted romanticism by superseding the natural with copies that were improvements on nature and thereby questioned the basis of our relationship with the natural world. The track in the illustrations carries two bird automata. In Muybridge and Marey’s chronophotographic studies, individual birds stand in for a whole species. Chard’s automata have foibles and personalities that provoke a relationship with the researchers beyond that normally held between people and a machine, inverting our relationship with the usually more typical machine. The project is asking the question of whether architecture can become an automaton. Instead of being our passive plaything, can architecture play with us? In all three areas what you see is the beginning of the question, not a resolution. As such, it is almost un-designed.

Although slightly tangential to the main thrust of Chard’s research, the bird flight track illustrated here provides a first provocation to test these varied themes in one strain of work. What will emerge out of it? Three things: content for the current generation of drawing instruments to discuss; examining the emergence of an architecture unencumbered by precedents and testing the awkward possibilities implicated in our relationships with machines.