Alumni Spotlight: Behnaz Farahi (M.Arch 2013)

School News

Alumni Spotlight: Behnaz Farahi (M.Arch 2013)

May 02, 2017

Behnaz Farahi is an architect and interaction designer, exploring the potential of interactive systems and their relationship to the human body. Her primary interest is the implementation of emerging technologies in contemporary art/architecture practice. Her goal is to enhance the relationship between human beings and the built environment by implementing design/motion principles inspired by natural systems. Application areas include architecture, fashion and interaction design. She also specializes in additive manufacturing and robotic technologies.


Her work has been exhibited internationally and has been featured in Wired, The Guardian, the BBC, CNN, Motherboard, Dezeen, Frame Magazine, The Creators Project and others. Farahi has won numerous awards, including a Madworkshop Grant and a Rock Hudson Fellowship, and has worked with firms such as Autodesk, Fuksas Studio, and 3DSystems/ She has also collaborated with USC Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis on two NASA-funded research projects developing robotic fabrication technology to 3D print structures on the Moon and Mars.


Currently Farahi is an Annenberg Fellow and PhD candidate in Interdisciplinary Media Arts and Practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She has also been an Artist-in-Residence at Autodesk’s Pier 9. She has an Undergraduate and two Master’s degrees in Architecture.


Tell me a bit about when you were in the architecture school and how you got interested in the work you’re doing now.
When I was doing my master’s, I was exploring work and ideas around responsive architecture, which was the topic of my thesis. So I started producing small installations that used technology for creating reciprocal relationships between users and the built environment. I was fortunate to work with people like Alvin Huang, who was my advisor.

After I finished my master’s, I was interested in taking this idea further. I was also interested in pursuing an academic career and doing experimental work that might not have space in the real world. Then I found out that there was a PhD program at USC that focused on interactive media. They’re not only getting PhDs in the interactive arts, but they’re looking for other ways of interacting with media and exploring new ways of using technology in media. 


I am exploring the relationship of between the human body and interactive environments ranging from the scale of the human body to the scale of architecture. Specifically, I’m looking at how technologically is changing our interaction with computationally enhanced environment. If you think about, computational technologies are everywhere. 


I wondered how to take these ideas a step further to understand speech or gestures. Basically, we’re discussing looking into more intelligent systems to create a better bond between users and the environment. What I call embodied emotional interaction.


Why is embodied emotional interaction important?
If you look at a lot of technologies that emerged in the building industry, initially they came from artificial intelligence which came from the fields of science and engineering. But AI research is now trying to create systems that completely replace human intelligence and they lack very basic sensibilities such as detecting a chair or a glass of water that even children can do. So although these computational systems are very advanced, they are also lacking. 


I’m following some figures like Rodney Brooks in Robotic sciences or computer scientists like Andy Clark, who are arguing for embodied interaction. So they are making robots that are both physically embodied as well as expressive of emotions that are able to make sympathetic or empathetic relationships with users. 


By looking at AI’s history and its current state, I’m trying to explore how to rethink some of the technologies in building or fashion. How can this technology embed itself in what we wear every day? How can we think about new forms, scenarios, or narratives for the future of architectural spaces?


In the context of garments, what drives this interest in having these elements interact and what are the implications?
Similar to buildings, if you think about the gadgets that have come to the market like wearable devices, they are about giving you numbers or calculations. So by looking at how we can blur this information into this fabric in a seamless way so you don’t need to look at your phone but you can feel the data on your body by the movement of the garment, or by changing the color or changing its form. 


I’m trying to create garments or fashion items that move away from information gathering followed by notification to actually wearing this information. What if you’re garment becomes responsive to your own emotions as well as other people’s responses? It is speculative and I can imagine creating a lot of cultural questions around it.


So you’re trying to create a framework for investigating these issues?
Yes, because what I think architects are good at is visualizing problems in novel ways. We have a slightly different outlook in thinking about problems and their solutions. So my work proposes that all future garments should have cameras for example to create a discussion that it’s not just about notification but about feeling the data on your body as you’re interacting with people.


What got you started in this direction?
I was always fascinated by public spaces and watching people interact with objects and environments. For example, watching children in my hometown engage with something interactive was really fascinating, and thinking about objects that have an element of animism and playfulness and watching people spend hours gathering around these objects. On the other hand, when I went to museums and galleries, I saw just pass by masterpieces without any interaction. There is a distance between people and the built environment, so how does technology make us a little more engaged and conscious of our surrounding environment?


When I was studying architecture at USC, Alvin was extremely formative to my work by pushing me in my explorations into material and material behavior. Putting materials together and seeing how they move, and how robotics and mechanics can be combined with architecture and design were all very fascinating to me.


For your PhD, what will be the outcome? 
This program is quite young and it’s a hybrid of practice and theory. We can potentially hand in one or a series of projects or we can write a dissertation. I have decided to produce a series of prototypes, interventions, and experiments and collect them, and then I will write a dissertation that will accompany them.


What kind of research are you doing?
My program requires that we design three areas of research. For my three areas I’m looking at the philosophical discourse as well as materials as a medium. The second is interactive technology, looking at them in different disciplines like robotics, computer science, and cybernetics, how responsive interactive technologies are. Then I’m also producing a series of prototypes. For example, I’m looking at a variety of sensors including EEG technology, body recognition, and gesture recognition. All these technologies are new so I’m trying to bring them to design to think of new applications to change our lives. Lastly is cyborg studies, which examines the relationship between humans and technological devices.


Where do you see your career going after this?
I would like to stay in an academic environment, although I have worked in industry as well. I think my main career is in the academic realm. I love working with students and exploring the application of new technology.


I’m also getting lots of requests about whether my prototypes are available for purchase, so I would also like to launch my own studio and get some real projects going. So far it’s just been one-off objects shown in exhibitions, but I never really wanted to market them. But this might be an interesting route to pursue now that I have clients showing interest. ■