The Architecture of Interfaces

For its inaugural semester, the Network Architecture Lab ( set out to revisit a critical moment in the relationship between architecture and computation while pioneering new media prototypes for future NetLab communications.

This research seminar, held in collaboration with the Institute for the Future of the Book, explored the work of the Architecture Machine Group, setting it into its historical, theoretical, and cultural context. Students produced research projects on the topic, developing prototype interfaces for an imagined book on the topic.

The precursor to the MIT Media Lab, the Architecture Machine Group, ArcMac for short, was founded in October 1967 by MIT architecture professor Nicholas Negroponte to create an “architecture machine” that would help architects design buildings. Inspired, to some degree, by Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad design interface, Negroponte hoped his architecture machine could allow architects to deal not only with problems of great complexity that exceed their grasp but also with those trivial problems of everyday construction that might otherwise be too boring to pursue. The Architecture Machine would be an active partner, intelligent, capable of learning and able to understand human idiosyncrasies such as hand gestures.

The vision of the architecture machine was never fully realized, but in the process the group developed key user interface ideas, some commonly used today, others still anticipating future technological developments. The Spatial Data System, or “Dataland,” and its “Put-That-There” interface by Negroponte and Richard Bolt demonstrated the utility of spatial forms of organization as mnemonic and navigational tools while pioneering the use of icons and graphic desktop utilities such as calculators, calendars, and telephones. Bill Atkinson, one of the designers of the Mac interface recalls that on a visit to the Architecture Machine Group, he discovered this interface and used it as the basis for the Mac desktop metaphor and spatial finder. The Aspen Movie Map, in which a videodisk was produced to capture every block in the city of Aspen at multiple times, anticipated Amazon's urban mapping project, although in depth and flexibility it still exceeds any commonly available interface. Similarly, a follow-up to the Aspen project, the Movie Manual, anticipated the web and the CD-ROM interface, providing a rich hypermedia experience. Other pioneering work of the Architecture Machine Group includes anti-aliased text, sophisticated telepresence research, and online personal news aggregators.

If the Architecture Machine Group did not directly produce a machine that could design buildings, its ultimate accomplishment was far more significant, for the group’s research turned the computer into a spatial machine, a legacy that lasts to this day. Into the early 1980s computers had been dominated by textual interfaces. At the Architecture Machine Group, a spatial metaphor for the graphic user interface was developed not merely for localized applications such as Sketchpad but as an essential means of interacting with the computer on all levels. In doing so, the Architecture Machine Group made the computer accessible to all but while fostering creativity and design as part of the everyday experience. This was Negroponte’s intention all along. Inspired by Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 book Architecture Without Architects, the Architecture Machine Group created machines that spread creativity from the avant-garde to the everyday.


E-Book Interface Design by Sang Hoon Youm