An interview with Johanna Jõekalda

Trojan Horse: Could you tell a little bit about your background? What are you working on right now, and what have you been doing before that?

Johanna Jõekalda: I’m a young Estonian architect. I have studied architecture and urban planning at the Estonian Academy of Arts and Studio Lynn at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. For the last years I have been working on virtual reality and brain tracking experiments. Human spatial perception was also the research topic of my master thesis with a specific focus on the interdependence of digital and physical environments. Currently I’m looking for opportunities to try the responsive design techniques developed in the course of the thesis project out in the real world.

 

TH: You graduated recently with a really interesting speculative thesis, could you tell a little bit about what that?

JJ: Sure, my master’s thesis was titled “Shaping Space by Experience Data”. It stemmed from the realization that while data-based solutions are increasingly improving our everyday lives, in architecture they are related more often to optimized production, environmental sustainability, programmatic functionality, economic applicability and other technical aspects, in the case of which no particular attention is devoted to user experience. In its most common present forms data-based approaches devalue spatial quality in architecture.

Considering the experiential impact to be the main criterion for spatial quality, I focused in my thesis on tracking beholder’s spatial experience in data format and applying this data in the design process. In the theoretical part I examined how the main actors in spatial perception as a cognitive process – space, senses and the brain – have become definable in terms of data, and how to make use of it in the design process that relies on beholders’ experiences. In the practical part I proposed a technique that allows to extract test subjects’ experience data from brain-computer interfaces as they visit virtual reality environments, and apply this data in the design process.

In the accompanying architectural project I demonstrated the potential use of this technique by the example of an innovation centre situated in the empty riverbed of the River Wien, the spaces in the building being programmed to adjust according to the visitors’ experience data. The principles for the adaptation of the spaces were based on various illusion techniques that allowed the ostensible properties of the environment to be distorted in a data-based manner. The boundary situations and adaptation logic of such spaces are designed by the architect, while the user shapes the situation at a given moment in time. This results in an experience-charged space that adapts itself according to its beholders’ spatial experiences.

TH: You are from Tallinn. How do you see the architecture and design scene there? How is it to be a student? Do you feel there is space and possibilities to try and do things differently?

 

JJ: I find the environment very fruitful, but only as long as you think of it in the global context.

I consider it important to keep in mind not to get too adapted to the local context, because it can easily make you lose track over the bigger picture. In a sense, things come easy in Tallinn because there isn’t much competition, but you can only take advantage of this situation if you keep doing things as if the competition was still there. The label of being “the first in Estonia“ to do this or that might be accommodating but it doesn’t mean that much on a broader scale. I try to make use of the local context just in the matters that are also globally relevant.

In terms of education, I feel that Estonian architecture schools try to hide their certain lack of vision behind the slogan that they don’t want to restrain its students. The Estonian Academy of Arts hasn’t gotten free from its sense of duty to focus on all the aspects of architectural education as if it was the only school in Estonia to educate architects, but it isn’t. Trying to be good at everything often leads to focusing on nothing… That’s why most of the students who have more specific interests rather develop their skillsets in some foreign school, in my case it was the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

TH: What is your workshop going to be about?

 

JJ: It’s gonna be about spatial adaptability – the ways of shaping space according to its performance. We’ll discuss which characteristics of a usual daily office experience are definable in terms of data, how to track these in real time, and how to make space react to these data flows, to provide improved work environment that recognizes the needs of the people within it and adapts itself accordingly.

TH: Do you have texts, videos or other things in mind we should read before the summer school, to prepare for your workshop? Why those?

JJ: I’d suggest you to choose any passage from James Gleick’s “Chaos” (1987) and any part of Adam Curtis’ trilogy “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (2011). They are both very enjoyable pieces, very easy to read and watch, and give a good introduction to the enthusiasm of describing everything from the shape of clouds to wildlife populations in terms of data.

Keep the publication and release dates in mind while reading and watching, especially in case of “Chaos”, and think how the described phenomena have evolved from that point on. Some of them have become common in our everyday lives, others have been proven impossible, back then they were all just what-if scenarios… efforts to define the indefinable.

Johanna Jõekalda (1990) is a young Estonian architect. She has studied architecture and urban planning at the Estonian Academy of Arts and Studio Lynn at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. For the last years she has been working on virtual reality and brain tracking experiments. Human spatial perception was also the research topic of her master thesis with a specific focus on the interdependence of digital and physical environments. Johanna has previously worked in Angewandte Innovation Laboratory, Allianss Architects design office and Skanska construction company, supervised the students of the Estonian Academy of Arts, spoken at different architecture symposiums, published writings in various cultural publications, curated several architecture exhibitions and participated in many more – multiple Venice Architecture Biennales among others. For instance in 2014 she co-curated the Estonian national pavilion „Interspace“ that speculated on the spatial consequences of a data society.

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