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  • Kivi Sotamaa

The Logic of Friction

This article explores the idea of friction in design and how it can be used to create experiences in support of of our well being and cultural transformation.

Rizor is an interactive multimedia sculpture by Kivi Sotamaa UCLA Research Studio students. It is an interactive object capable of seduction through lighting, sound and movement. (Students: Colin Prothero, Stephen Baron, Patrick Mobley, Alex Mason)

Design and architecture play an important practical role in making our lives easier. In many cases, it is good to design things that work in a simple, unobtrusive way. Most designers today, in particular those in the digital media environment, strive to keep things running smoothly in the background, with as few clicks as possible - which is excellent for a parking app. Most social media is designed so that we only meet people who agree with us and encounter information that interests us. Many architects and product designers agree. The less friction the environment or object produces, the better. Design should be 'timeless' and on the background.

Concept for Helsinki Museum of Design and Architecture proposes a dynamic public space where various urban flows collide. Design by Ateljé Sotamaa

However, ease and fluidity have their downside: the environment can become passive, reduced to mere matter and function, devoid of cultural significance. A society that emphasizes cost savings and productive efficiency rarely enlivens people's operating environment or the world of experience. It is not the effortlessness of experience, but the creative friction between people and the environment that gets our attention, inspires us and nudges us towards personal and cultural change. We need friction to keep us awake, have us contemplate our relationship to the world, challenge conventions, encounter surprises and different kinds of people in our environment.

Concept for Helsinki Museum of Design and Architecture proposes a dynamic public space where various urban flows collide. Design by Ateljé Sotamaa

A frictionless city would be a culturally dead city, frictionless art just entertainment. There are many good examples in the history of art, design, and architecture of how an object, service, or building challenges existing patterns of thinking and inspires people to consider new perspectives, or encourages them to make better choices in their lives. These designs are what one could truly refer to as 'timeless', because over time they become integral parts of the culture they once helped transform.

Appeal to Reason is a concept for a public building where public park-like spaces operates three dimensionally across the entire building. Tallinn Architecture Biennale. Design by Ateljé Sotamaa

Exploring & Taking Risks

Architectural forms sustain and support social spaces and by extension, they can drive innovation in social life and contemporary culture. It is the job of culturally motivated architects and designers to try and conceptualize new kinds of social and cultural spaces, which challenge the status quo. We are not encouraging self-indulgent fantasies, which don’t aim to impact or improve life. We are promoting the idea that bold exploration and risk taking are necessary in order to create design and buildings, which are life enhancing and beautiful.

The Finnish Pavilion at the 2017 world expo reoriginated the experience of Finnish social, political and natural landscapes into architecture. Design by Ateljé Sotamaa

Inspiring Interaction

The need for a renewed design thinking emphasizing friction stems from the need for social interaction: Western societies and Nordic welfare states are drifting into a situation where society is becoming polarized, where people are alienated from each other and their environment. Loneliness is a growing social problem. The alienation of people may, at worst, challenge the legitimacy of the entire Western society.

Architecture should have a stronger role in promoting inclusion, social mobility and cross-cultural exchange. Like art, it should be life-enhancing - have a responsibility to inspire thought and debate. It cannot be separated from other art forms simply because it is intertwined in things such as function. It is the job of architecture to imagine new kinds of social spaces and it is the task of engineering to make them technically feasible.

Atelier House is open to the world around and creates a public space for interaction.

Design by Ateljé Sotamaa

Impacting Cultural Change

In our own work, we have explored design and architecture as tools for influencing people's thinking and behavior. We have sought to increase tolerance and social pluralism, to contribute to cultural renewal and, more generally, to reinforce values ​​and practices that are important for positive social development. By this we mean that objects, furnishings and buildings, even entire cities can be designed in such a way that they change people's attitudes towards issues such as climate change.

For example, our design for the Ultima circular economy restaurant is an experiment about changing peoples’ relationship to food. While the chefs explored the culinary applications of the most innovative farming technologies we examined how friction in architecture, design and art can be used to change people's attitudes and by extension culinary culture at large.

Cricket Lamps for Ultima restaurant are tools for growing crickets inside a restaurant, which at the same time create an audiovisual spectacle encouraging people to explore their preconceptions related to food. Design by Ateljé Sotamaa

Design With Agency

The idea of using friction strategically has a strong behavioral basis. Psychology, behavioral economics, political science, medicine and health have, over the last decade or so, found that people can be "nudged" to change their way of thinking and behavior in a desirable way.

In our work friction is always a positive force and a facilitator of change: When a person's environment, object or service is designed to produce friction, he or she must slow down and think. Contrary to conventional thinking, friction in design acts as a force that awakens, increases the ability to see wider, encourages the search for new knowledge, encourages active citizenship, and enhances interaction with diverse people.

Friction is one way to answer the old question; how can architecture be used as a critical tool with agency for cultural change? This does not mean that architecture or design should not work, but that design cannot be solely driven by customer-oriented, functionalist thinking that is embedded in existing structures and practices.

Intencities for Helsinki Cultural Capital 2000 was an open air 'art institution' with loosely programmed events coupled with radically open and unprogrammed public spaces for people to use and explore. Design by Ateljé Sotamaa

Impacting Social Reality

Physical environments may have lost some of their cultural significance in the era of digital media. However, we trust that experiences that cannot be downloaded will in the future increase in their social and cultural importance.

In our studio we combine a critical attitude towards contemporary culture with a strategic use of friction. For example, a recent and still ongoing project entitled the Meteorite is a three story residential building, made solely of cross laminated timber. The aim of the design is to create aesthetically striking wood architecture in order to challenge existing modes of living and to promote new and more sustainable modes of being in the world.

Our work focuses on exploring and evaluating how architecture and design can influence our society, including its social and political dimensions. We will continue to take risks, challenge conventions, practices, and create critical discussion that helps and forces thinking and action. We will work to provide forums for radical new thinking, critical design, and aesthetic discourse that addresses and expands the understanding of our existential and social reality.

The Meteorite is a three story residential building, which creates a intensely social and three dimensional space within a monolithic form made entirely of wood. The ambition is to create a new seductive and sustainable lifestyle in nature. Design by Ateljé Sotamaa

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The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has described how our brain works and in so doing illustrates how the experience of friction happens: According to him the brain ‘constantly hallucinates at the world, as a system that constantly lets its internal autonomous simulational dynamics collide with the ongoing flow of sensory input, vigorously dreaming at the world’. In other words, we perceive the world through top down models in our minds, which interact with bottom up stimuli from the world around us. For example, when you think you see a table, you actually see just the prediction of the table in your brain. You know from past experience what it feels like if you touch it, what it sounds like if you bang on it, and what it is meant to be used for. However, if some of the table’s qualities contradict the predictive model in your mind, those contradictions cause friction and rise up in your consciousness, and cause you to explore the object and if needed, adjust your mind-model of it. Top-down, prior knowledge (convention) is a pervasive feature of our perception. Mismatches between the top down predictions and actual sensory input cause friction, which can be strategically used to trigger exploration. This process can fundamentally change our embodied knowledge, the way we feel, and think about the world. This is how architecture can be used to challenge convention and trigger cultural change.

Thomas Metzinger, (MIT Press, 2004) Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity

Joshua Rothman, (March 26, 2018) The New Yorker: Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality? A new technology—virtual embodiment—challenges our understanding of who and what we are.


Thaler ja Sunstein, (2008) ”Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness” (Penguin Books)

Sunstein (2014), “Why nudge? The politics of libertarian paternalism” (Yale University Press).

How cities trick you into better behavior: What behavior scientist are doing to improve urban living (BBC Worklife, 13.8.2018, N. Hemrajani).


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