An Intellectual Klein Bottle

An Intellectual Klein Bottle

Generally, we have limited the projects discussed here to buildings or other objects that have actually been constructed, or are under construction.

This has eliminated a large portion of the architectural world, the region of Proposed Architecture.  A huge conceptual realm, Proposed Architecture has a vast virtual footprint, possibly rivaling in size the actual built environment.

And it is a sector amply represented in the online architectural press.  Proposed Architecture is often presented through incomprehensible Architect’s Statements, whose originally lucid thoughts didn’t really survive the trip through Google Translate.  There are always copious photo-realistic renderings, populated by a surprisingly small, repeated cast of blurry humanoids who apparently trot the virtual globe visiting all manner of un-built buildings and pavilions.

CompositesandArchitecture has largely avoided Proposed Architecture, but a recent project tempts us, because it bridges the gap between the Built and the Un-Built.  The Theater of Lost Species, a creation of Future Cities Lab, has been built… in miniature.  The model (or prototype?) is currently on display at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, in a show called Dissident Futures (through Feb. 2, 2014).  One purpose of the display is to fund-raise for construction of the full-size version.

The outward appearance of the Theater of Lost Species instantly brings to mind the words “Mutant Sea Urchins From Space,” and in this case, that’s not a bad thing.  The entire concept is intimately bound up with issues of mutation, and of our planet’s journey through Space/Time.  This sculpture, this object, is a virtual aquarium containing a digitally-created ecology of extinct marine species.  The protruding cones are viewing ports, though which theater-goers can peer to observe screens mounted inside at the wide ends of the cones, displaying the virtual aquarium.

The full-size version will be about 16’x16’x16’, and will be comprised of 15 unique carbon-fiber panels, to be fabricated by Kreysler & Associates, American Canyon, CA.  The model was fabricated with laser-cutting and 3-D printing by Difference and Repetition, San Francisco, CA.

(Except for the single pic of the model, all views of the Theater of Lost Species displayed here are virtual, complete with those blurry virtual people  who are gradually becoming so familiar.)

So, to recap: we have here an actual, digitally-fabricated representation of a concept for an actual container for a virtual environment to virtually present actual but extinct species.

(It was the opportunity to take that little ride through an intellectual Klein bottle that induced us to break our rule about Proposed Architecture.)


From Future-Cities Lab: 

Part virtual menagerie, part memory chamber, part urban spectacle: Visitors will be invited to view and interact with swarming digital sea creatures through large glowing viewing cones. Screens mounted at the end of the cones will display a curated virtual ecology of lost marine species. Sensors will allow these digital creatures to react to visitors, while slowly pulsating light rods create a dynamic and playful atmosphere at night.  

Design & Fabrication: Future Cities Lab, San Francisco – Jason Kelly Johnson & Nataly Gattegno (Design Principals); Team members: Ripon DeLeon (Senior Associate), Shawn Komlos (Intern). Production Team: Ji Ahn, Fernando Amenedo

Scientific Collaborators: Matthew Clapham (UCSC); Dr. Jonathan Payne (Stanford University)


1. What’s the big idea?
The Theater of Lost Species is an object for collective celebration and mourning, a catalyst for conversation, philosophical debate and ecological engagement. It is a device for both viewing and interacting with a collection of fantastic, yet extinct, sea creatures. The project is inspired by a number of influences such as Traveling Menageries, Chinese Lanterns and portable Camera Obscura devices from the 1800’s, Time Capsules from the 1950-60’s and various recreations of Noah’s Arc. An important tandem project are Seed Banks such as the on at Svalbard, Norway. After reading Lydia Millet’s Op-Ed in the NYT “The Child’s Menagerie” we began the process of conceptualizing and designing the Theater. We set out to address Millet’s question:”Can you feel the loss of something you never knew in the first place?”

2. What will visitors see through the viewing cones? What will it look like at night?
The long viewing cones focus on digital display screens that are portals to a seamless virtual aquarium. Within the aquarium, digital sea creatures swarm to the viewing cones, engaging the subtle motion of viewers. In the evening the theater will glow and pulsate as the swarms slowly navigate within the virtual aquarium. We are developing a custom physcial-digital interface using the Processing programming language (connecting Arduino microcontrollers, Infrared (IR) Sensors and LEDs) allowing viewers to actively engage the virtual creatures. We have been inspired by projects like Soda ConstructorOasis and Manifest (* these links will not work on iOS mobile devices). 

3. How big is it and what will it be made out of?

The Theater has a footprint of approx. 16′ x 16′ and is 16′ tall . It will be made out of lightweight Carbon Fiber Reinforced Panels (FRP) and resin. The 15 unique hexagonal panels will be made by Kreysler & Associates in the Bay Area. The glowing pins will be made out of translucent cast rods connected to super-bright LEDS. A custom steel chasis will connect all the pieces and will be bolted to the ground. The entire assembly will be protototyped at Future Cities Lab in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco.   

4. How did you design and prototype this? 
The Theater is being designed using Rhino and Grasshopper softwares with the Kangaroo and Firefly plug-ins. The interactive components are being programmed in Processing, Arduino, Python and Ruby. The physical components are being prototyped using a combination of laser cutting, cnc milling and 3d printing (we used a Makerbot Replicator 2 generously donated to us by Jake Lodwick from Elepath). Each viewing cone has three integrated IR sensors that allow the microcontrollers to sense visitors proximity which in turn activate the virtual swarm and glowing LEDs pins.

5. If I have more questions how do I contact you guys? How can I donate or sponsor the project? 
You can contact us by e-mail at: We will begin fundraising efforts in late 2013.

Images via