iheartblob on locating the architectural object in a mixed, extended reality

Operating in the liminal space between the augmented and virtual, the UK-based studio’s abstract creations are charged in a visual language that defies medium and convention.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Jul 05, 2022

The eponymous blob in the name of this UK-based practice - working with as much fluidity in medium and discipline as in the form of their works - may hold the key to defining iheartblob’s pedagogy and ever transforming style. The blob, at once formless yet defined in its organic geometry, free of gravity and yet dynamically morphing, metamorphosing into a new blob, seems the most direct inspiration for the studio’s work. Fitting, since a majority of their work finds its sacred ground in the digital planes of an imagined reality, wherein the constraints and parameters defining the architectural object are defined by only a constant sense of entropy - and code. Aided by digital means but not limited by them, the interdisciplinary design and architecture studio's works transcend how viewers experience and perceive them, finding comfort in the "liminal space" between the digital and the physical, the real and the imagined, the tangible and the intangible. 

  • _Spaces by iheartblob Video: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • The studio continuously searches for new mediums for audience to explore their work, unlocking new dimensions through screens Video: Courtesy of iheartblob

The architectural design studio and research collective formed by Aleksandra Belitskaja, Ben James, and Shaun McCallum conjured up a particular personal interest for me, owing to their expansive work in the realm of digital architecture. While both the digital and the hybrid mediums have lent themselves effortlessly to the fields of art and more recently design, its adaptation to the architectural realm still remains rather nascent, mostly limited to the larger discipline of visualisation. 'Imagined' architecture though, and the sheer possibilities it holds, as showcased by iheartblob’s work, freed from the constraints of material, conventional purpose and utility, and even habitability and bylaws, seems to be having far reaching implications and learnings, much beyond a piece of digital architecture to own for one’s avatar to reside in the metaverse. Its tendency to engage in a continual dialogue with 'built' architecture, exploring possibilities, and even virtually overcoming its exposited challenges and limitations is what establishes this digital counterpart as an important proponent in the equation, and a bonafide discipline warranting academic enquiry.

  • A walk through iheartblob’s Nine Square Video: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • A digital, synthesised environment, showcasing the studio’s strong focus on the architectural object | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    A digital, synthesised environment, showcasing the studio’s strong focus on the architectural object Image: Courtesy of iheartblob

In an in-depth, analytical conversation with STIR, quietly beckoning the NEXT in digital architecture, the trio from iheartblob touch upon the didactic heart of their practice, challenging the status quo in architecture and theory, how motion serves as an additional dimension in their work, and the new paradigms they explore through their phygital, near boundless creations.

Anmol Ahuja: How do you think the notions of space and design change when designing for the digital realm or for the metaverse - away from their physical meaning? How do you, as designers, interpret those notions for people, who are the primary users of that space or design?

iheartblob: A lot of our design focus over the past six years has been on the mixing of both physical and the digital, often referred to as the Phygital. We have always been firm on remembering the constraints and the advantages of working within the digital i.e. lack of gravity, and the ability to have animated materials and geometries. When we are conscious of these small interventions, we can design spaces which challenge the way we think of space and experience today by allowing architecture to transform, adapt, and reconfigure to users.

  • Subliminal, by iheartblob, juxtaposes fantastical creations against a real environment Video: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • Suburbia, by ihearblob, showcases the studio’s preferred colour palette in pastels | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    Suburbia, by ihearblob, showcases the studio’s preferred colour palette in pastels Image: Courtesy of iheartblob

Anmol: The name of your practice is particularly intriguing. How do you define the 'blob' in your name, away from its literal meaning?

iheartblob: The definition of 'blob' within architecture is one which comes with a lot of nuance beyond the literal meaning. It stood for the *Binary l o b’ first coined by Greg Lynn. This is integral to our inception as a practice purely because it is a geometric idea firmly rooted in the first digital age of architecture.

Anmol: Do you think your varied backgrounds in economics, digital art, and game development, apart from architectural design, added a definitive edge to your work?

iheartblob: 100 per cent. Diversity has been invaluable for our work, and equally grounds us to connect with multiple disciplines and challenge the status quo, whether that be formally, conceptually, or economically and politically, like we are doing through the Fungible Non-Fungible Pavilion in Tallinn.

  • A visualisation of Fungible/ Non Fungible Pavilion, presented by the studio at Tallinn Architectural Biennale 2022 | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    A visualisation of Fungible/ Non Fungible Pavilion, presented by the studio at Tallinn Architectural Biennale 2022 Image: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • Isometric view, Fungible/ Non Fungible Pavilion | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    Isometric view, Fungible/ Non Fungible Pavilion Image: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • Physical model, Fungible/ Non Fungible Pavilion | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    Physical model, Fungible/ Non Fungible Pavilion Image: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • The design can also be minted as an NFT, with each user being able to customise their ‘cryptoblock’ | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    The design can also be minted as an NFT, with each user being able to customise their ‘cryptoblock’ Image: Courtesy of iheartblob

Anmol: Your work regularly traverses the digital, the physical, and the intangible space between the two media. Where do you find the most consonance operating in?

iheartblob: For us the most exciting overlap, the liminal space, is perhaps not the one which fits so neatly or purely, simply because this is a negotiation between digital and physical work, rather than always being something of cohesion; it can often be at odds with each other which we find equally interesting.

Anmol: Your work also lies at the overlap of several disciplines that are academically and professionally defined rather stringently. How do you attain this sense of fluidity while transcending mediums?

iheartblob: Our studio was born out of challenging the status quo both in practice and in academia and it’s something we continue to strive for today. That could include developing new visual languages for architecture or writing theoretical papers which challenge legislation or the more fixed parameters of architectural design.

Anmol: A major aspect in designing and building is the notion of tangibilty associated with it: being able to touch and feel your creations. While that notion has certainly evolved in the digital age, how has that informed your practice?

iheartblob: As architects, we are told from an early point that the end goal is often building. However, early on, we align ourselves with the notion that architecture can be many things beyond the physical representation. With that said, we enjoy the connection between the digital, which challenges notions of form, colour, interaction and animation, and that of the physical. The liminal space inbetween is a key point of interest for our research and practice. Developing a narrative for architecture which transcends across the digital and the physical will continue to be core for our thinking.

  • Rhubarb and Custard, by iheartblob | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    Rhubarb and Custard, by iheartblob Image: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • The architectural object defining the form of the creation | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    The architectural object defining the form of the creation Image: Courtesy of iheartblob

Anmol: How do you work with introducing material qualities - both visual and tactile - into your digital creations?

iheartblob: Materials are incredibly interesting when you think about them digitally, as they are no longer fixed, static or tactile. Instead, we have the opportunity to imbue tactility or fluidity, meaning materials become more akin to animated geometry wherein they can be more pliable. Often, our work explores the overlap between the real and the unreal where timber is like water or water is like concrete.

Anmol: A definitive standout in your works is the aspect of motion and, in a way, constant metamorphosis associated with it. How do your designs utilise that to lend this additional dimension to your work?

iheartblob: The notion of metamorphosis is quite interesting and for us, begins its journey into our work primarily through the software tools which we develop to create our work. These can be as simple as generative systems to create growing, animated geometries, or real-time engines which enable us to build active, reactive systems of geometry creation and interaction, both from non-player characters and the player. By designing our own tools, we have controls over how objects and architectures react in the digital, and also how they may react and interact with users through hybrid, mixed reality experiences.

  • iheartblob – Augmented Architectural Objects: A New Visual Language, a publication by iheartblob that incorporates the aspect of augmented reality Video: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • Noodlefeed by iheartblob, exploring the studio’s experiments in ‘mixed reality’ Video: Courtesy of iheartblob

Anmol: What would you say is the kind of freedom the medium of digital creation affords you vis-a-vis built architecture?

iheartblob: Designing for the digital allows for no restrictions where constraints like gravity or planning regulations have no real direct impact. The digital realm gives an opportunity to explore notions of space that are not possible in the physical realm. Digital gives an opportunity to test and experience these ideas in real time, without having to construct architecture, which is certainly freeing. 

Anmol: In contrast to the freedom of creating what otherwise might not be possible in the physical world, what seems to be the most challenging aspect of being mixed reality artists?

iheartblob: Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of designing for mixed reality is the ability to innovate while having hardware restrictions. While we can imagine all sorts of things, we often have to look back and see that technology is yet to catch up to our ambitions. While it’s highly encouraged to look past tech limitations, we love to see our work deployed in the mixed reality world, where people are able to experience it through the lens of smartphones.

Anmol: You criticise contemporary architectural undertakings as plagued by a crisis of thought. How would you define that crisis, and how do you suggest your work addresses or overcomes that?

Iheartblob: A few years back, we found ourselves in a time when architectural academia struggled to define itself theoretically. It was going through a lot of drastic changes in technology and processes with a lot of questions regarding automation, authorship, and the future of the built environment. Architectural discourse struggles with defining what this may be. Traditional architectural research focuses a lot on efficiency or function, while often disregarding the more conceptual approaches which help to define new architectural languages, which in turn change the way in which people live.

  • Arc de Blob, an interactive installation by the studio | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    Arc de Blob, an interactive installation by the studio Image: Courtesy of Khristel Stecher Photography
  • Blob House being viewed through an augmented reality filter | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    Blob House being viewed through an augmented reality filter Image: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • LightNight, by iheartblob Video: Courtesy of iheartblob

Anmol: How would you like your work to be emotionally experienced by your audience? What are the feelings you wish to evoke through your collective body of work?

Iheartblob: We want to evoke positive emotional feedback, excitement, and curiosity.

Anmol: Colour seems to play a predominant role in your creations. What are the criteria defining the iheartblob palette?

Iheartblob: We defined our aesthetic with the current feelings or trends in social media. We tend to work with pastels, pinks and blues, imbuing ideas of cuteness and playfulness. We are more than comfortable challenging the architectural traditions of stoic materiality. 

Anmol: Your work speaks of a focus on the architectural object. How do you define the architectural object and its constraints, if any, through your work? 

Iheartblob: This one is a hard one to define and carries far too many meanings and thoughts to confine within a few sentences. Our entire publication iheartblob – Augmented Architectural Objects: A New Visual Language revolves around many notions of what the architectural object might be.

  • For iheartblob, the digital medium makes their creations boundless and allows them to experiment with abstraction Video: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • sitnplay, a bench designed by iheartblob viewed with and without an AR lens, pointing to the possibilities of the medium Video: Courtesy of iheartblob
  • “Our work explores the overlap between the real and the unreal where timber is like water or water is like concrete”, states studio iheartblob | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
    “Our work explores the overlap between the real and the unreal where timber is like water or water is like concrete”, states studio iheartblob Image: Courtesy of iheartblob

Anmol: Juxtaposed against real architectural settings, enclosed or in the open, your work seems to activate the space while drawing little from it. Would you agree with this relationship?

Iheartblob: While our work does act as a beacon in space, we deliver it with context in mind. There isn’t a direct connotation with contextual architecture, or desire to "blend in"; we treat context in a different manner, taking details, experiences to design hybrid environments focused on remixing old and new interventions, creating a new space in between.

Anmol: A number of your works also serve as and venture into digital installations. How do you go about designing people’s interaction with them in particular?

Iheartblob: There is hardly any way to predict how a person would interact with a certain object, technology or experience. We often make speculations and design accordingly, testing apps in real world environments.

A major focus of our applications has always been to see how people interact with the experience. It’s important for us not to impose rules or ideas, but rather to pose questions. An overall goal for us is to give people new spatial experiences with architecture that would make architecture relevant and immersive once again.

Aleksandra Belitskaja, Ben James, and Shaun McCallum, founders and principal designers at iheartblob | iheartblob Interview | iheartblob | STIRworld
Aleksandra Belitskaja, Ben James, and Shaun McCallum, founders and principal designers at iheartblob Image: Courtesy of iheartblob

Anmol: While art and design NFTs are gaining immense popularity, what do you think the future looks like for architectural NFTs?

Iheartblob: There are countless ways that architecture can adapt NFT and blockchain tech into its workstreams. One of the most potential streams we see being utilised in architecture are new economic and design processes. Our project Fungible Non-Fungible pavilion challenges the idea of the master builder and distributes the design agency to the worldwide community, allowing them to express their own creativity within the built environment. Alongside it, we are working with building a new economic model in order to finance this creativity. The community can have collective purchasing and design power and influence directly how their cities look, feel and operate. This is particularly innovative as architects struggle with single stakeholders and in turn develop architecture which is not representative of the people which inhabit it.

From collectible NFTs to otherworldly blockchain-funded crypto creations, STIR brings you the best of fungible-non fungible inspiration from the global realms of art, design, and architecture. Read more here.

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