Second Skin, Fierce Festival, Birmingham, UK, 2004

Working with architects and students in over 5 different countries to explore archetypal dwellings.

This project included Installations, performances, art shows, genetic algorithm program.

Second Skin:
building from the space of mind
The structure of mind as mirrored by architectural spaces.

“Some neurons in the brain do explicitly encode location. “Place cells” in the rodent hippocampus fire maximally when the animal is physically within a particular region in its environment (for instance, between the water-cooler and the door). Outside this restricted area, the cell is silent.”
“On the order of 100 place cells suffice to encode a 1 x 1 meter region with a spatial resolution of a few centimeters (Zhang et al., 1998; Brown et al., 1998)
The quest for consciousness
Kristof Koch
(Place cells were first described by O’Keefe and Nadel (1978), and in humans: Ekstrom et al. (2003)).


Introduction Second Skin

At the beginning of the 20th century, modernists aimed to change society through architecture. At the end of the same century, architects such as Piano, Koolhaas, etc, claimed to change the “self” through architecture. Second Skin aims to change “architecture” through the self, leaving designers’ ambition and arrogance aside. By studying the “always already there” space within all of us we were looking to open up new possibilities of design. But during the development of the project, we realized that we are just re-opening them, since the outcome indicates that civilization has dragged these possibilities apart from the primary conception of dwelling. Second Skin uses the idea of origin as its source for originality.

Second Skin is an innovative exploration of design that is derived from the most basic functions and processes of consciousness, the unconscious. It is a project that explores the structure of mind and its emotions as mirrores in architectural spaces.

Urbanization and architectural strategies usually follow a vector from macro to micro, from general to specific, from prescribed and mandatory to subjective and personal. Second Skin turns this trajectory around, seeking a process of emergent design. Second Skin starts by examining patterns, qualia and structures seated within the unconscious that relate to conception of shelter and dwelling. Following Jung's ideas on unconscious archetypes and Kant's investigation of schematas, we flesh out what could be termed intratypes. Intratypes may be defined as recurring dynamic patterns of our unconscious interactions and mental programs that give coherence and structure to our experience, and manifest as conscious thought, intelligence and actions.

These modules of mental processing are coaxed out through an application of a hypnotic induction technique and projected into the terrain of architecture. Following suggestions of amnesia and agnosia which disengage the subjects from conscious tendencies to apply filtered external conceptions to their thought processes, such as contamination from media or indirect peer pressure, they are asked to extend their consciousness to envelop a Second Skin. The Second Skin is an architectural space that corresponds to an enlarged self, that comprises aspects of memory, brain function and deeply rooted notions of protection and shelter. Essentially, Second Skin uses the processes of mind as a model for architectural approaches and at the same time uses architecture as a metaphor for housing the collective space of mind.

The development of the project has involved architecture students and professionals from around the globe to form the basis for a new emergent approach to architecture, an architecture that is tied to the unconscious rather than predetermined codes, textbooks, fashion and architects’ dictatorial spaces. We seek to point the way to a “new” design that grows from and fits the most fundamental needs and desires of the self and group. Through Second Skin, we search for architectural spaces that reverberate within the self, allowing for an identification of the person with his/her dwelling space.

The project began in June of 2001 as an experimental project with some students from the Architectural Association in London, and has extended to workshops at the Academy of Art, Gdansk, Poland, as well as at the International Festival of Media in Architecture "Beyond Media", Florence, Italy in May 2002,and the Faculty of Architecture at San Luis Obispo, CA. Between January and June 2002 students at the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores the Monterrey, at the faculty of Queretaro, Mexico collaborated in depth both in architecture and programming to develop Second Skin into a dynamic model of emergent architecture. The most recent workshop, performance and exhibit was with the Fierce! Festival and RIBA in Birmingham, UK 2004

Ultimately our aim is to develop a seamless interface between the individual’s mind and surroundings that will enable our environment to better fit within us and us within our environment.

When investigating the possibility of purely mind-driven design – uncontaminated by media and external influences - the phenomenon of memory without awareness and instances or cases in which a mental disassociation takes place are key in pursuing the idea of mental though that is independent of external influences, or is only dependent on unexpected or curiously tangential ways. The process used for this enquiry is hypnosis, as the use of this method allows us to communicate directly with the unconscious. Hypnosis allows the extraction of deeply rooted conceptions or schemas that are closely tied to the emotional states and the body’s extended intelligence through the central nervous system. It could be said that the unconscious part of the self is like a pattern: when extracted as an object – in this case a “house” – is a reflection of the person.

The process itself is unhindered by the usual social considerations such as practicality, conformity or desire, or considerations towards the self, such as the need for original thought to satisfy hunger, procreation or even milder compulsions. By suspending these constraints, even for a moment, we can get a glimpse of the mind itself at work. By doing this, we aim to gain a certain insight into our relationship with the world around us, in terms of which part of consciousness is generated by rule, by habit, by constraint and which part corresponds to the mind itself, as a mirror to its own workings.



Some of the houses obtained during the volunteers’ inductions might resemble physical structures of the mind as well as its processes. This evokes the alchemist conception shared in several ancient cultures of the “as well low as high” (Tabula Smaragdina) meaning the correspondence between the micro and the macro, the interior and the exterior, the self and the collective. 

To illustrate this, some houses appear to mirror the two cerebral hemispheres through form and symmetry, as in the case of Cordula Weisser who visualized an organically shaped double helix. The nested network of branching structures appears several times in different volunteers – like Roman Priewsly- similar in effect to an electron microscope analysis of the microtubules that make up the structure of the brain.

The view through a certain window opening with a constantly changing exterior landscape, as visualized by Michael Hensel, echoes the visual pathway from the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus to the primary visual cortex. Creativity is only the bridge between the reflection of the micro to the macro.

Following the interview, the information about the inner dwelling is translated as accurately as possible into a digital model. The model is built in 10 different “layers,” each layer corresponding to a separate aspect of the structure: such as ceiling/roof, walls, floor, openings, interior objects, exterior objects.


In order to recognize the patterns that emerge from the mind, we have developed a program that sorts the data extracted from hundreds of hypnosis sessions into its essential characteristics. This program is known as a “fitness function” or “genetic algorithm,” and its roots may be traced as far back as 1958, to Oliver Selfridge’s presentation at the National Physics Laboratory of “Pandemonium: a paradigm for Learning,” in which he outlined the basis for pattern-recognition software.
Although this kind of software has been applied to everything from palm-pilots to more exotic mathematical and spatial investigations such as those undertaken by Marcos Novak over the past dozen years, its application to changing our understanding of consciousness has only just begun.

After analyzing the results, we realized the need to filter the common traits in several houses we have processed, having some kind of sense of the collection of visualized structure. Perhaps the idea of a “collective-house” or deeply embedded, shared generic programming may seem a little far-fetched, we have nevertheless been interested in filtering the visual data we have extracted into a kind of coherent pattern that allows for quirks and variations and yet reflects collective tendencies.

Furthermore, our intention has not been to end up with a single utopian conclusion, but to offer up a variety of “heterotopias,” each version offering a temporary conclusion. For this end, we have constructed a “genetic algorithm” program that “mates” the formal architectural structures visualized by each volunteer and “breeds” the forms through several generations.
The use of this fitness-function program, along with the use of hypnosis, allows us to avoid value judgements, which may colour our results and findings, and at the same time enables us to find correlations and common thinking patterns between a wide range of [participants.

The algorithm sorts the architectural forms for traits to determine the final form. From this form, condensed spatial information can be extracted and included in the design of architectural spaces.

Additional notes

Fierce Festival
Second Skin 2004

This performance was held at Millenium Point at the ThinkTank Theatre.
The performance involved architects from the workshop and a couple more volunteers, and involved a regression in which the subjects were asked to
model visualized structures from the primary repertoire (unconscious) in luminous play-dough. Then the subjects were asked to trace a structure
from the future, what I call "antemnesia" or anticipatory memory. The structure was tracked in 3D, generating elevations and a plan in realtime,
turning gesture into isometric form.

The week we spent there was very intense and it was ambitious to say the least to try to do so much in such little time. However I was very pleased with the results and all the help and support that everyone from Fierce gave us. Coming back a second time around, there seemed to be a feeling of trust and camaraderie between us that felt good and gratifying. It seems that so many projects and endeavors are throw-away in this fast-paced world, so it was all the more special to feel your continued support of the project a year later. This year the stakes were a little higher as we were working with professional architects and there was the Riba involvement...I would like to think that we helped create a bridge between Fierce and Riba and the future developments of Birmingham.

As far as our impact on the architects is concerned, I also hope they enjoyed the experience, and although there may have been some skepticism, I think that the process may have helped to get some of these architects in touch with their inner selves, and at the very least generated a debate as to the source of architectural creativity. It may be useful to try to get a little feedback from them, if you have not done so already (please forward me any comments). Negative criticism is as useful to us as positive feedback. It is always a surprise to see architects, who are quite a guarded species open up, if only a little...

The results that came out of the workshop will be folded back into the project, and it was quite interesting to see some repeats of what has emerged over past workshops...Larry's imagined space for instance was extremely similar to one of the spaces that we built a model of last year at the UCE was a concave space with bubble-like structures embedded into its interior wall.

Unfortunately Larry who responded very well in the workshop, came across a mental block in the performance probably due to some childhood trauma. The performance I think went well, and hopefully transmitted the idea behind Second Skin to the general was nice to hear the subjects talk about their inner experiences. There was an obvious technical glitch which was unfortunate, and perhaps it was too much to expect to set up all the computers in 2 an ideal world it would have been good to get in the day before. Luckily Leon gave us his invaluable support and I think the performance worked anyway...