Multitasking Infrastructures: A Conversation with Sheila Kennedy and Veit Kugel

In 2001, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) released an RFP for the design of six ferry landings along the East River. The RFP for the landings called for inter-modal passenger terminals and shelters, commuter ferry boat docking facilities, site improvements, and community amenities as a means to encourage public use of the East River waterfront, offer commuters an alternate means of public transportation between the boroughs, and serve as a public safety transportation corridor in times of emergency. Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) was selected to design the East 34th Street Ferry Terminal and the East River Ferry Landings Project. Since the East River Ferry launched two years ago, ridership has greatly exceeded expectations.

In 2012, the new terminal opened to the public. Whether you’re a ferry commuter or just passing by, the experience of the terminal suggests a specific architectural sensibility. The design weaves together diverse, site-specific elements – the patterns of water reflecting sunlight, the flows of passengers entering and exiting the ferries, real-time data collection and communication – and succeeds well beyond the typical program requirements expected of a multi-modal, public transit facility.

This integration of natural systems, material innovation, and digital technology is a hallmark of KVA’s practice. In the conversation below, KVA founding principal Sheila Kennedy and senior associate Veit Kugel discuss some recent projects, especially the Soft House and the East 34th Street Ferry Terminal, that reflect a singular and synergistic approach to architecture, infrastructure, and civic space. –C.S.

East 34 Street Ferry Terminal | Photo courtesy of Julie Jira
Cassim Shepard (CS):

How would you characterize intelligent infrastructure?

Sheila Kennedy (SK):

I think that there has been a shift in how we understand infrastructure and its role in cities. The kinds of infrastructure planned and built during modernism may no longer provide satisfactory solutions going forward. So there is a lot of discussion and debate about the new systems needed and how architects might leverage them to make public space.

When people say “intelligent infrastructure,” they’re referring to this next generation of infrastructure, which might more precisely be called “resilient” or “soft infrastructure.” And part of what characterizes this is a new alliance between natural systems, architectural artifacts, and digital networks. The challenge of resilient infrastructure is to design these elements to work together in synergy.

If modern infrastructure is considered machine-like or mechanical, then the contemporary generation of infrastructure is more about the coordination and integration of parts. And it’s more biological, if you think of biology in terms of different elements working together in ways that aren’t entirely mechanical or predictable.

Veit Kugel (VK):

Many people use the word “intelligent” in the sense of digital intelligence. But I think it’s more productive to think about it as moving away from an exclusive focus on any single functionality. It’s about integration, about situating systems to react to and function with natural as well as manmade environments. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge was “intelligent” long before the revolution in digital information technology, because of the ways the traffic lanes are moved based on patterns of use.


How do research and development figure into to your practice at KVA, particularly in terms of materials or in projects like Portable Light and the Soft House?


MATx is a materials research lab integrated within our practice at KVA. We’re referring to materials as a plural and open-ended condition, and the research we do is applied, often installed within works of architecture. In our workspace, we have an opto-electronics workshop and a fairly large prototyping workshop in addition to our design space. To be able to experiment and innovate with materials in this way requires a lot of effort and resources, even to organize the space of an architectural office physically.


And it requires the mental facility of branching between different disciplines, to be able to approach a problem like an engineer or to think like a mason. As much as the physical space, your mental space needs to be open. And that’s not always the case given the amount of specialization in our field.


The model of large corporate architecture offices around the world, which began to become prevalent in the 1960s and ’70s, was based on specialization, on designing the same category of architectural artifact whether it was located in San Francisco or Beijing. Our goal at KVA is to be vertically, rather than horizontally, integrated. We’re a small office, never more than 18 people, and we focus on bridging the gaps that we feel allow us to move from innovation into application in architecture.

Beaded artwork and cell phone charging by solar power, Mexico | Image via Portable Light Project

One example from our practice is the Portable Light project, which provides adaptable solar textile kits that make it possible for vulnerable populations to sew and weave bags, clothing, and blankets that harvest energy. Portable Light is a non-profit that works with partners and NGOs and is currently operating in three countries, including a large project underway in northern Brazil. Portable Light was the first example of a new infrastructure that we’ve put into practice.


Another example is the Soft House, a project we have been developing for the Internationale Bauaustellung (IBA) Hamburg, an international building exhibition, on a site in an underutilized island in the middle of Hamburg called Wilhelmsburg. We won an international competition to design smart buildings, and our project has been to build four carbon-negative rowhouses. The energy consumption of these houses has to perform to a Passive House standard, which is a rigorous international standard of about 11.1 KWH per square foot for all energy use: heating, cooling, cooking, living, lighting, etc.

Part of how we achieved that was through solid-wood construction — meaning the entire structure is made of wood, and held together with dowels rather than nails — as opposed to the stick-build construction more prevalent in the US. This creates a hyper-insulated envelope, into which we’ve inserted two major interventions that are soft and fabric-based.

The first soft intervention is an exterior membrane structure with flexible photovoltaic cells. This is a kind of canopy that achieves three things at the same time: it provides privacy over a southern exposed façade that is fully glazed; it harvests energy; and it shades the building. The harvesting of energy and the shading are interactive and respond to the sun’s movements daily and annually. The system, which we developed in collaboration with Knipper Helbig Advanced Engineers, moves on multiple axes simultaneously to shade the house while maintaining an optimum orientation to the sun.

Soft House

The second invention, which complements the exterior canopy, is a set of interior curtains. These do everything that curtains have traditionally done for centuries — they provide privacy as well as a cushion of insulation against the window. But in the Soft House, these curtains distribute solid-state (LED) lighting throughout the house, and the curtain tracks distribute clean energy to the low-voltage grid. Unlike traditional curtains, however, they can be arranged not only along perimeter windows, but can be used as space-making gestures within the interior space. The curtain tracks “export” electrical distribution away from the wall and into the interior space. And they are reconfigurable like a model train track. So you can rearrange a very simple open floor plan at different scales by pulling the curtain along the track in different positions, and pulling solid-state lighting deep into what would typically be the darker parts of a typical rowhouse.


The Passive House model is satisfactory from the point of view of efficiency metrics. But architecturally, the model has been questioned, if not discredited, because of the enormous investment of insulation and materials at the perimeter in order to prevent any heat from going in or leaking out. That creates an aesthetic challenge because it typically means you’re going to have a dreary house with very small windows and not a lot of light. And it creates a performance challenge because of the enormous amount of energy it takes just to make these thick envelopes, full of insulation and other materials that can’t be recycled afterwards. So the problem with the Passive House is that we’re putting carbon emissions into the air in order to make these energy-efficient houses. It’s a dilemma.

By using the all-wood construction for the Soft House, we avoid that problem, and we also avoid using the loose insulation that you would need in a traditional cavity-wall structure. By taking advantage of these lighter-weight materials — the canopy, the curtains, the curtain tracks — we basically unpack the wall.

We had to rethink 100 years of the hollow wall typology where electricity and plumbing is packed inside a wall system. We basically flipped the traditional roles of architecture and infrastructure in the Soft House, such that the structure is more permanent and the infrastructure is more like furniture: movable, networked, adjustable, and upgradable.

The Soft House exemplifies the use of soft systems because we considered relationships between a natural system (in this case, the climate of Hamburg), material properties (in this case, the soft spruce wood), and a new smart, digital infrastructure. It’s an integrated architectural proposition.


Which brings us back to your original question about intelligent infrastructure. Intelligent doesn’t necessarily mean the use of a new technology or the use of digital information. It’s about synergy, about integrating multiple elements.

Soft House

And one of the reasons the 34th Street Ferry Terminal is an interesting project is that integrated approach to natural systems, transit infrastructure, and information technology. How did that project come to be?


The project came to be some time ago when the City was looking to create six ferry terminals along the East River. The East 34th Street Ferry Terminal was always going to be one of the larger terminal buildings of the system. Mayor Bloomberg really got behind the idea of the ferry system. In addition to water-based transportation providing a lower-carbon transit alternative that might mitigate gridlock on the streets and bridges, ferry terminals also came to be seen in light of public safety and emergency evacuation after 9/11.

Between the time we starting working on this project and the time it was finally ready to go forward, the cost of steel had risen dramatically and we had to rework the design. This led us to improve the final design — that doesn’t always happen! In addition to removing the glass that was originally envisioned, we also changed the roof structure to a tensile system. We worked with structural engineer Michael Stein, of Schlaich Bergermann und Partner, and the ferry terminal you see today is very much the product of a good collaboration between architects and engineers. And what Michael Stein was able to help us achieve was a very slender structure, an elegant canopy that looks very light and cloud-like. The entire thing – the triangulated, tripod structure, the detailing on the façade system, the double-wrapped tensile roof – is an innovation. And our client team of City agencies – the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), the Parks Department – their first question was, “Where are there existing examples of this smart, new infrastructure that we can visit, examine the maintenance, and see how it works?” We had to tell them that there are no examples. So we had to demonstrate that this could work. And to their credit, the clients saw the advantages and hopefully it can become a new standard for this type of ferry terminal.

It’s a great example of how a building can be designed as a set of elements, networked together. Instead of creating an entire heated and cooled building, we developed interactive components that occur when the need dictates: a heat-on-demand bench warming system, adapted from the automotive industry; a rain screen that drops down when there’s a lot of horizontal rain; daylighting along with interactive LED lighting.

And we also worked with natural elements, like the sunlight reflected off of the water’s surface. The sparkly, pattern effect – called the caustic network – that you see in swimming pools or when you go underneath a bridge is predictable within a range of complex algorithms. So we essentially harvested this reflected light all along the underside of the terminal’s canopy, and used it to inform where the openings to the rivers reflecting pool would be in the south façade.

We’re juxtaposing natural effects with digital interactions and interfaces. Sensors will monitor the flow, speed, and direction of the tidal flows as well as the flows of people entering and exiting the terminal.

East 34th Street Ferry Terminal, Courtesy of KVA Matx

So rather than the architect patterning a material at his or her will, we are borrowing effects from the site’s existing conditions to augment the design. And it’s much more interesting because it changes; it has a fourth dimension: time.

Buildings and infrastructure are used differently over time, and they can react to those changes intelligently. In the Soft House, the curtains can move around during the day or the year to create different arrangements of space. In the 34th Street Ferry Terminal, the timing of the tide becomes legible on a range of scales, from the small effect of light reflecting off a ripple of water to an urban scale gesture towards the FDR. The East River is one of the few locations in Manhattan where a building can be modest in size and still visible from afar on the horizon. So in choosing a translucent material for the roof, we wanted to make the building illuminate the tidal movement of the estuary that feeds the East River.

Of course, the program for this building relates to its primary use as transportation infrastructure. But transportation needs for the space are only at peak hours. For this to be intelligent infrastructure, it should never be idle. Whether it’s used for fishing or just to hang out, it’s a multitasking civic space.


How is the terminal connected to the rest of the city’s transit infrastructure?


It’s a multimodal terminal with taxi stands, and the M34 crosstown bus that stops there. There’s no subway stop, but it connects to the East River bikeway and a range of upland transportation infrastructure.


And there’s a lot of real-time information being transmitted to passengers?


Yes. It’s always handy to have information about when boats are coming or leaving, and this is actually simple to collect and correlate. Beyond that is a wireless network for passenger communication, a public messaging system which can be used in an emergency, and screens that display ferry information as you approach the terminal.

And the terminal makes use of the marine traffic control system, based on Staten Island, that had fallen out of use. Every city has a lot of layers to its ambient digital infrastructure. Some of these are quite robust. The challenge is not always to create new systems; often it’s to network with unseen layers and urban digital systems.

When people enter and exit the ferries, they pass a series of optical sensors that signal their presence. It doesn’t take a picture, but it reflects the flow of people, it tracks the patterns of passengers and displays that in light. It’s a quiet, ambient kind of environmental sensing that we developed with the David Small of Small Design Office.

Photo courtesy of Halkin Photography

Do you see this project as demonstrating technology that can be used for a range of different kinds of buildings?


Yes. I think the discipline of architecture needs to consider simultaneously the site specificity of any one work of architecture as well as the larger model each work represents.

It’s not as if the specific project we’re talking about is going to be replicated, but it does offer lessons about how to create building services that interact with each other, how to reduce steel and create structures that can be fabricated largely off-site, how to harvest some of the effects of the sun besides solar power, how to integrate environmental sensing in public space.


Do you think public awareness is growing about environmental sensors and how they might be used?


I think people are interested in urban sensing. What we need is just a few breakthroughs, which may be imminent; to help people to understand what networks are available to organize the multiple sensor points. And then you need a practical and affordable sensor. Then citizens everywhere can connect behavior to environmental factors, and buildings can monitor performance through ambient sensing. Today, your iPhone or Android is about as close as you get to handheld sensors. But as we know, companies like Google or Apple are working on the next generation of smaller devices that will facilitate assessing information, tying that data to a network, and accessing it in real time.

The sensors active at the 34th Street Ferry Terminal also monitor information below the surface of the East River, its tides and currents. This information can be used in different ways, and it creates an emotional connection to the environment. Let’s not forget that when you’re waiting for the ferry, you’re in a state of limbo, possibly bored, your mind drifting. Creating an opportunity to introduce information about the river’s flow and the flows of people might lead to new understandings of both natural and urban systems.

Sheila Kennedy is a founding principal of Kennedy & Violich Architecture Ltd. (KVA), an internationally recognized design practice that explores architecture, digital technology and emerging public needs. She directs MATx, the materials research unit that works collaboratively with business leaders, manufacturers, cultural institutions and public agencies to apply creative production across the fields of design, electronics, architecture and material science, including the MATx Portable Light Project, a non-profit global initiative that enables people in the developing world to create and own portable energy harvesting solar textile kits.

Veit Kugel is a Senior Associate at KVA MATx where he has led teams of designers and consulting engineers on large scale complex building renovations and competition entries. He provided project management for the 34th Street Ferry Terminal. He has taught at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and co-authored the book Bugs, Fish, Floors And Ceiling, Luminous Bodies and the Contemporary Problem of Material Presence.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.