New London Architecture

Five Minutes With...HAQUE TAN

Tuesday 28 May 2024

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor meets Usman Haque and Ling Tan of new design studio HAQUE TAN to talk about its new AI-inspired interactive entrance for Great Ormond Street Hospital and mixing technology, the physical, virtual, and even non-human in design

 
David Taylor  
Hello, Ling, and hello, Usman. Welcome to this ‘Five Minutes with’!
 
Ling Tan  
Hi. Great to chat with you!
 
David Taylor  
You're a newly formed design studio as I understand it and already have a really fascinating completed project to talk about, which is this new, AI inspired interactive entrance for Great Ormond Street Hospital School. Could you both briefly let our readers know about the former, i.e. the studio, and how it all happened? And then the latter, which is called the Wild Imaginarium
 
Ling Tan  
Yes, sure. So, we are HAQUE TAN. Usman and I both trained as architects, and we recently launched this studio after more than 10 years of working together, across architecture, art and technology. Because we recognized that in today's world, there is a need for an approach to designing the built environment and public space that blends all this together.
 
Usman Haque  
Essentially, we're looking to blend the digital and the physical; blend the artificial and natural, and blend the human and non-human, particularly working in the built environment where I think it's really crucial. Because the combination of the scale of architecture, and what we see as the eccentricities of technology is a really rich area for investigation. Yeah, well, I think very often, people think of technology as about optimization, and about problem solving. And I think our approach to technology - because we've worked in this space for years, we've built technology ourselves - we know that when you work with technology, actually, you might think you're solving a problem, but you're always generating other things you need to worry about. And it's much more interesting for us to think about technology in terms of the really insane things that come out of it. The idea that technology can sometimes give people a sense of superpowers; the idea that technology means that you can connect to somebody across the world. The idea that technology can take something that seems physical and solid and have it melt and respond and change and be dynamic. And in the architectural context, what traditionally or typically might have been thought of as hardware - long term physical stuff like walls, roofs and floors, actually become software; things that change either over short periods of time, or longer periods of time. And so, we say eccentricities, because it's a bit mad when you think about it, what technology enables experientially.
 
David Taylor  
In what way? What do you mean by the ‘eccentricities’ of technology? Could you unpack that?
 
Ling Tan  
I think we're also very intrigued by the serendipity that you can have from technology. So, I think just adding on to what Usman said earlier on, one of the backgrounds that we haven't raised is that we are both also creative technologists ourselves. So, we have been building technology, both hardware and software for the past decade or two. And I think for us, what we found really interesting in technology is that oftentimes it failed.  I don't think people - ordinary citizens - see that as something that they're familiar with. Because the technology is oftentimes produced by big tech companies from Silicon Valley. So, I think from us personally, we have experienced a lot of times when we built technology that it often failed. But what was interesting it was often through this failure that we found interesting things about technologies or directions that we can create out of it.
 
David Taylor  
So, tell me about how this attitude is encapsulated in this project. Could you describe Wild Imaginarium just in its basic sense? We've got a video as well on here, but could you describe it and how it came about?
 
Usman Haque  
Wild Imaginarium came about because we worked with Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, which, as you probably know, is one of the world's leading children's hospitals. And we were looking at the new primary entrance for the hospital. This is because the main entrance is being closed down during a period of construction over the next four or five years. And there's a new entrance now on a different street, which is on Guilford Street. So, because a lot of our work is about co-creation with communities or with people who are involved in a project, we were looking at how to work with the children in the hospital, to create a new entrance experience that really embraced the theme of life in all its forms. In other words, physical life, digital life, artificial life, and have this kind of burst out of the building, across the facade, across the pavement and even appearing in the street. That's the kind of short version of it.
 
David Taylor  
And how technically have you done this?
 
Ling Tan  
So, it was an interesting journey. When we started this project, I think that was two years ago, other generative AI stuff just came out around that time as well Chat GBT, Valley, Midjourney and things like that. So, when we were formulating the process to working with the children, one of the constraints was that some of the children had different medical needs. So, we had to be really cautious and aware of the constraints that we have with individual children
 
Usman Haque  
There was a wide range of ages as well, all the way from three years old to 15.
 
Ling Tan  
Yes. And so, when we were formulating the workshop engagement, it came about naturally that we decided to use generative AI as a tool to get them creating images that we helped lead them towards creating. So, one of the ideas at the very beginning was this idea - actually, we have been using this movie as an inspiration - Annihilation, the film by Alex Garland. And so, we were really interested in this idea of life bursting out, but also this idea of how form changes and evolves over time as well. So, we wanted to see whether we can work with children to encapsulate that. So, we were using some of the generative AI tools that we can use, working with children to get them to co-create different types of theorems that they wouldn't otherwise see in the real world, through it
 
Usman Haque  
Yes. Using, if you like, their imagination of the kind of life that they would like to see and have that in all the variety of imaginations of all the different children that were taking part in this. So, when you look at the facade, you'll see hundreds and hundreds of different strange-looking life forms, each of which was born from one child's imagination, using the generative AI
 
Ling Tan  
That came up at the beginning of it. And then when we started formulating and designing the three-dimensional experience, and just how everything comes together, then we started using AI. We started experimenting with other tools, and not just AI, but also back-end software that we can use to try and really create the kind of life bursting out. So, for example, one of the things that is in the overall form that you see is screens that are embedded into the facade where it actually brings to life, the images that were created by the children. And we have been experimenting with the use of AI animator, AI tools and using processing and things like that.
 
Usman Haque  
Basically, these kinds of digital life forms also respond to the weather and to the seasons and will be different every time you go past the facade. All that mixes together with the real physical plants that are embedded outdoors as well.
 
David Taylor  
So, it's almost like an interactive virtual living wall, isn't it, in a sense, for the building?
 
Ling Tan  
It is, and we were also interested in how we blend in the physical form as well. So, you'll notice at the entrance area, the colour kind of blends into the floor and into this parklet, where there's real plants as well. So, we worked with the landscape architects to curate the type of plants that are going to be in the parklet as well so that you respond to the artwork, the colours that are in there. 
 
David Taylor  
I'm interested in what the reaction has been from children who haven't been involved in its creation, and perhaps their parents. What's the feedback you've had from the entrance thus far?
 
Usman Haque  
So, it's quite a visually prominent thing on the street. And in fact this was kind of intentional, because one of the parts of our brief was, look, we've got this new entrance in its completely different location. So, it's got to be quite distinct. And, we've got to celebrate what is potentially quite an anxiety-driven experience really, you know, going to the hospital. So, we're actually very pleased that people do stop; they actually take photos with themselves...
 
Ling Tan  
...So far, the GOSH team has said that they have not got any negative feedback. So, I think the feedback is: it's been successful so far.
 
Usman Haque  
I think one of the key things in terms of feedback - what really is important to us - is that the children who were involved in the project can point at what they created. They can say, 'that is the bit that I did'. And I think when you see somebody who's involved in the project getting so excited to see their imagination turned into something physical, and you know, something that is going to be there for years to come. You know, I think that's really what gets us excited. That sense of ownership of the outcome.
 
David Taylor  
Last question, because I'm running out of time, but are you considering using this kind of technology elsewhere? What are the other applications of this in other areas? Presumably, you have other projects underway that incorporate this kind of technology?
 
Usman Haque  
We're still looking at using AI. But what we want to do is push further this idea of the triangle between human, natural and artificial intelligence. So, rather than working with the image-based AI tools, we're really interested to work with the language-based tools. And the reason is that we've developed some prototypes for basically ways that you can talk to trees and have them respond to you. And so, the idea is to create a landscape of conversant non-humans as a kind of a design proposition, where you have an actual ongoing relationship with them. It's all in the early days!
 
Ling Tan  
I think, adding to that, one thing that we want to see as well in our work in HAQUE TAN is to figure out how the technology could then blend with the architectural scale of things. So, it's not just a kind of experiential aspect, but the physicality as well, how it blends into the built environment; that's something that we'll be experimenting more with, with the use of AI tools.
 
Usman Haque  
Yes, what the materiality of this is. I know you're about to run out of time, but it's just to say that I think that we're a bit worried about how much large technology companies are starting to define the experience of space, and public space in particular. Whether it's through mapping, or whether it's through large tech companies building augmented reality tools. We think it's very important for architects and professionals in the built environment, who really understand space and materiality and experience and relationships to make a concerted effort to start to script the way that these can all come together. 
 
David Taylor  
Well, that's really fascinating. When you talked about talking to the trees, my dad used to sing a song, which was, "I talked to the trees, that's why they put me away."
 
Both
(laughs)
 
David Taylor  
Kind of madness ensuing. But the tree thing sounds fascinating. What's the application for that? This is in an urban environment?
 
Usman Haque  
That's right. I mean, putting green infrastructure into public space is obviously an old idea. But the real question is how people's relationships to those trees persist? If you walk around London and you see all the trees that were planted 200 years ago, if we actually had ongoing conversations with them, and we could ask them about their history, we could ask them about when they were planted, we could ask them about everything that they've seen or experienced environmentally along that time, I think that changes the way we relate to not just each other as humans, but also to the non-human species.
 
David Taylor  
Well, good luck with all of that! That sounds absolutely fascinating. And thank you for talking through this Wild Imaginarium project, which I shall go and have a look at - and maybe even talk to!
 
Ling Tan  
But I think just, I mean, obviously, we haven't really got an understanding of what is the language that trees are using. So, what we are doing here is really to almost construct a system where people are looking at the tree, but almost as a reflection of themselves as well as their understanding of the nature. So, the application is really in the context of dealing with climate crisis, where I think a lot of us know that the natural environment is greatly impacted by our actions. So how do we create this more sustainable relationship with nature in that context? (laughs) 
 
Usman Haque  
(laughs) Thanks very much. Thanks for the call
 
David Taylor  
Cheers. Bye
Watch the video of the scheme here
WATCH HERE


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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