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Tyler School of Art
Temple University


Metaphorical references to skin abound in contemporary architectural discourse. The building envelope is the skin that separates and provides a controlled atmosphere for the interior space of a building, one that is set off from the surrounding environment. This simple definition is challenged when architecture is understood as an organism, and the skin and structure of architecture as a system. The conflation of structure into the skin is used here as a way of thinking of the architectural enclosure as a deep skin, and the individual parts of which an architectural skin is constructed, as a study of the tissue of structure.

The biological metaphor when transferred to architecture introduces the use of the term organic in relation to the built environment. Just as buildings and cities were referred to as growing organically, contemporary architects use biologically-inspired terms to describe the processes by which computational design may mimic natural processes of growth, a parallel to biology in computational systems. This overlap between the computational and living organism existed at the development of the computer in the mid-twentieth century.

There is permeability in a biological system: the boundary of the cell membrane is the delimitation of interior functions of the cell and the pressure of the exterior environment. Seen in a different context, these terms resonate with the question of the architectural skin. My goal will be to understand the ways in which these theories of systems, biofeedback, and cybernetics are use to critically engage these metaphors and their use in architecture in contemporary design practices. This new work Deep Skin: The Tissue of Structure will investigate the interface between biological/ organic systems and computational systems and will expand upon my book New Flatness: Surface Tension in Digital Architecture to engage the theme of skin. This new study is based on the premise that the surface or the skin of architecture is not shallow but deep.

My research will continue to develop the historical and theoretical base to engage these ideas across a wide range of interest and in different disciplines. Some of the major themes that I will explore include: the specular/reflecting skin, mediatic skins, skinning the space frame, metabolism and megastructures, the digital skin, supersymmetry and the new grotesque, Big Data and networked skins, and Object Oriented Ontology and opaque skin. A secretive and unrevealing surface lies at the polar opposite of the specular surface, raising questions about the skin of architecture as the site of intersection of theory, materiality, affect, signification, and comfort.

Alicia Imperiale is Assistant Professor of architectural design and history and theory at Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She is an architect and artist and received her Ph.D. in the history and theory of architecture from Princeton University in 2014. Her visual and scholarly work focuses on the impact of technology on art, architecture, representation, and fabrication. She is author of New Flatness: Surface Tension in Digital Architecture (Birkhauser, 2000). Other essays include "Digital skins: architecture of surface" in SKIN: Surface, Substance and Design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002),“Territories of Protest,” in Log 13, “Seminal Space: Getting under the Digital Skin,” in RE: SKIN, ed. Mary Flanagan, (MIT Press, 2006), “Dynamic Symmetries” in Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry (ICA, 2011) and “Stupid Little Automata” in Architecture & Culture (2014). She is author of the forthcoming book Alternate Organics: The aesthetics of experimentation in art, technology & architecture in postwar Italy. Her research has been supported by a Center for the Humanities at Temple University Faculty Fellowship, a Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts Research Grant among others.

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