Meet the English-Pakistani architect and artist who harnesses the power of design and technology to imagine interactive creations that engage communities and transcends the walls of today to peek into tomorrow
“MY WORK iS VERY PROCESS BASED SO i NEVER REALLY KNOW WHAT i AM DOiNG UNTiL THE PROJECT iS FiNiSHED”
When you search for Usman Haque on the internet you come across a handful of brain cell stimulating videos of him talking about his people centric creations and sharing profound thoughts on subjects he knows best. i had to watch them a couple of times to understand this visionary. i call him that because his forte lies in interactive architecture systems that create responsive environments, installations, digital interface devices and participatory initiatives -territories still uncharted by many.
The Londoner, a trained architect, is no stranger to technology and its vast potential. in fact, he is the founding partner of Umbrellium that designs and builds technological tools to support citizen empowerment and high impact engagement in cities. But this UK based firm is only one of his many jaw-dropping accomplishments.
He admits he stumbled into architecture not only because he was good at math, physics and art but also on the suggestion of family and friends. As it happened, he was really interested in building beyond the conventional sense. “When i started my education, i was still baffled by the idea of designing physical structures,” states the English-Pakistani who studied at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture in the ’90s. Architecture has traditionally been understood as three dimensional spaces with a floor, roof and walls but Usman looks over and above the obvious. He proposes that it is also very much about the things in-between or what he calls “softspace”: The smells, lights, sounds, electromagnetic fields that together affect people within the fabric of the space. “Even in my post graduation work i focused specifically on how people perceive space, how they interact with it and how they interact with other people in it. it’s not about the physical construct…,” he elaborates. Some of his tutors at Bartlett introduced him to cybernetics, a study of control and communication in animals and machines, and more importantly, the works of Gordon Pask, a significant contributor to the discipline whose theory explains how interactions lead to “the construction of knowledge”. Usman’s interest in this field steered him to explore how communication can be applied to design and space right from his graduation project The Moody Mushroom Floor -a system of eight input-output devices that were given goals and anthropomorphic labels like “alluring” or “sullen”. The mushrooms “learnt” from constant trial and error to develop moods and intermingle with people by using light, sound and smell. “it was my first attempt at building a system, where the space gained an interactive framework over time, rather than having one imposed on it,” he explains.
Talking about his inclination towards technology and programming, Usman reveals he has no formal training in computer science or engineering. When he was 11, his father bought him his first computer from a garage sale. “i wanted to play a game on it. But my father told me we weren’t going to buy it and if i wanted it, i had to make it myself. i understand now that he was teaching me that i could learn how to program on my own,” he narrates. After a long break from programming, he revisited his skill set during his under graduation and it is now an integral part of his life.
On completing his formal education in 1996, he worked as an architect in Malaysia and New York before returning home to teach at his alma mater.
He also established his practice Haque: Design + Research, where he collaborated with different people from various segments to envision responsive and interactive projects including the famous Burble, an 18 storey tall wall of illuminated balloons made of modular and configurable components controlled by the participants. in 2008, to help himself remotely track information of his Japanese project, he invented Pachube, a web platform that enables one to collect, share and discover real time sensor, energy and environmental data from objects, devices and buildings across the globe. in other words, it’s like Twitter but for machines and was soon acquired by LogMein inc. in 2013, the 44 year old “got together with some of my favourite people” to launch Umbrellium that does what Haque: Design + Research did, but with more focus on “getting life into cities”.
Ask him how he thinks and pat comes the reply. “My work is very process based so i never really know what i am doing until the project is finished.” Although employing latest technologies, Usman believes that all his creations are essentially about the people. With mass participatory creations, the most interesting aspect for him is the lack of control he has on the situation. “it is like i let loose something into the world and see how it changes, adapts and evolves over time. As a designer i am constantly trying to figure out a framework that has enough structure that people can build off, but not so much structure that it limits what they can do with it. That is really the kind of the challenge in every project.to develop a system that encourages and accelerates other people’s creativity,” he reveals.
FLY ON THE WALL
Usman’s key aesthetic influence is the Black Swallowtail caterpillar and butterfly that used to live in his backyard. As a child, he used to study them carefully, read books about them and even dreamt of being an entomologist. “The butterfly is such an elegant creature with black wings and tiny hints of red, blue and yellow splashed across it.
I can trace back my interest in minimal, beautiful things to it,” he explains.
Usman Haque, London Website: www.umbrellium.co.uk
To help prevent an overload of carbon footprints, this city wide network of electronically assisted plants, which are both energy providers and circuit breakers, depend wholly on cooperation of people who own it commissioned by the city of Santa Monica, uS, this large scale outdoor installation was a water-screen or mist projection system that created a colourful mirage like scene which reacted to voices, music and screams of the people nearby.
Usman spent the better half of the last decade exploring technology to create impactful creations.