Michael Cosmas
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Harvard GSD Mailboxes
Cambridge, USA

In the age of the internet, the role/future of physical mail, and subsequently of a formal mail distribution system becomes increasingly questionable. The project, attempts to examine the possibility of a meta-structure, a machine that explores new territories and possibilities in the typology of the mail-box system.

Transgressing the passive, becoming virtual
A process of systematic analysis of the typology reveals a unique attribute to an otherwise obsolete physicality in the traditional mail-box system. By presenting itself as a physical matrix that (en)lists the school's student body, the traditional mail-box system unfolds a unique and exciting moment : a moment of (virtual) collectiveness, of the ‘sinolon’ of the users. The project attempts to reinvent the typology through the exploration of this moment of collectiveness. It aims to become an important, vital element/extension to the ‘sin-olon’, one that not merely 'receives', but in a sudden transgression of a traditionally passive role, 'voices' too. In this, it becomes virtual…..

Digital and formal topologies
The project deploys and intertwines formal and digital modalities. The formal materializes through a 6mm thick cold rolled steel surface that unfolds in the corridor-like space. The digital modality materializes through a 16x20, 320 light emitting diode (LED) matrix, embedded in the surface. In two intertwined but separate processes, both modalities seek to develop a hyper-functional relationship with the 'primary code', their internal design logic; they subsequently, undergo a process of (re)contextualization, through a series of systematic negotiations of local conditions*. These processes generate/explore unique topologies both within the material organization of the project and within the space it occupies. *(these include structural, spatial and formal particularities)

The project seeks a degree of virtuality by remaining 'un-finished'. It deploys the fundamental layers, the (infra)structure of a system that aims to encourage, but not determine, the generation of many more layers. Emergent layers of habitation, appropriation, codification… It becomes a ‘multiplicity’ full of possibilities….
Formal modalities : structure/form (infra)structural landscapes
The fabrication is formed and structured simultaneously. The process involves a series of systematic manipulations to the fabrication's 'matter' - self-supporting 6mm cold-rolled steel*, that operate primarily on three scales, and explore external and internal topological intensities. *(The width of the steel was determined through tests that looked for structural rigidity at a 50% degree of perforation)

Scale one
The first formal manipulation 'wraps' the fabrication around the two structural elements available - two concrete columns situated in the space, whilst resting it on the space's concrete floor. The logic aims to transfer the fabrication's vertical loads to the floor (horizontal element), and the horizontal loads to the columns (vertical elements), establishing a structurally symbiotic relationship between the fabrication and the space. The 'wrapping' - the only structural control mechanism at this scale, is achieved through a series of formal folds.

The second formal manipulation at this scale, 'tilts' the fabrication at a 4 degree angle*. The logic aims to generate a subtle mediation zone between the fabrication and the user without the use of a third mechanism - the user is intended to stand at such a distance from the fabrication so as to minimize damage. The 'tilt' is achieved through a formal stretch. *(The 4 degree angle is the maximum deviation from the vertical permissible by the building codes, for a structure to be considered vertical, thus requiring no extra precautions taken for sight impaired users)

The combined effects of the 'wrapping' and 'tilting' manipulations result in the differential relationship of the surface to the adjacent wall*. This is central to our ambition in generating conditions that begin to suggest in-habitations of the surface by a number of diverse systems. *(The differential relationship to the wall, occurs on both the xy and the zx planes. It also the originator of the oblique end that the surface presents on the east side, when it 'meets' the wall)

Scale two
In a single formal manipulation, the fabrication undergoes a process of formal/structural 'thickening'. A structural loads and bending moment analysis dictates a distribution of structural intensities at strategic locations on the surface. These are generated through the subdivision of the fabrication's surface in 34 un-equal parts*, that are subsequently folded on their edges to produce structural flanges**. The flanges become the mechanism that provides the fabrication with the required 'thickness'***. *(The subdivision involves the study of the fabrication's structural performance within its environment, as well as a self-supported structure)_ **(The flanges are drilled with four ellipsoidal holes each, which are subsequently used to screw the steel panels back together)_ ***(The thickness was set at 4 inches, a value determined by the consideration of available assembly/drilling equipment accuracy and desired structural performance)

Scale three
The fabrication undergoes a final series of formal manipulations in order to generate the mechanisms that will facilitate/encourage its 'habitation' by a variety of systems. In the first formal manipulation, a matrix of 462 1' x 2" orthogonal cuts are generated on the surface, that are subsequently folded, and re-attached to the surface in order to become 'receptors'*. These angles, are equipped with ¼'' pre-drilled holes, that allow for a variety of structural attachments. As the surface develops a differential relationship to the adjacent wall, the angles differ in depth. From the original depth of 81/2" , they gradually diminish to a virtually flat, ½" depth. *(The steel trays, generated through a series of cuts and folds on a single galvanized steel surface, are conceived as the first layer of 'inhabitation' of the surface, and are attached to 340 of the receptors).

In the second formal manipulation , a matrix of 462 ¼'' holes are drilled on the surface, generating another mechanism of support to layers of 'in-habitation'*. *(The matrix of holes is primarily intended as the system that will allow the digital modality to weave through the formal, but is not exclusive to that).

Digital modalities: the media wall data landscapes
The digital modality unfolds through a 16x20, 320 light emitting diode matrix, embedded in the surface and linked to a computer that hosts the system's user interface*. The project aims for the modality to develop complex relationships with both the physical modality, the systems that inhabit it and the user/s. The range of these relationships can be mapped as three distinct levels/modes. *(The matrix uses a series of decoders to connect to a computer. The computer, a terminal of the school's network system, becomes not only the 'host' for the modality's input interface, but also the nexus between the digital modality and the school's digital infrastructure. The interface relies primarily on a touch sensitive input screen and a bespoke software that allows the user to locate/sort student individuals or groups through accessing school databases, and have the information related to the mail-box system by the led matrix. It is built in such a way so as to allow/encourage possible modifications/mutations of the system in the future).

Level one
In its primary mode, the modality assigns a purely utilitarian role to the matrix. The matrix operates as a locational device, allowing the user* to identify - or be identified as - (through the use of the interface), single individuals or subgroups within the student body. At this level, the matrix operates in tandem with the mail-box system and each led directly refers to the student box above it, becoming its digital extension. *(the user is not always external to the system, but is occasionally 'internal', a configuration that essentially enables the student individual or body to identify itself instead of being identified).

Level two
In its second mode, the modality operates the matrix as a relational device, and allows the user to display - or be displayed as - digital mappings of the student body, through the accessing and cross referencing of digital databases. At this level the matrix still operates in tandem with the mailbox system, but it is the overall effect* that is primarily read, whilst the direct reference to individual student boxes becomes secondary information. *(this capability enables/encourages the discovery/display of emerging datascapes that map/represent the student body. This is a unique attribute of the system, since these datascapes are weaved into the physical modality and juxtaposed to the only physical 'representation' of the student body, the mail-box system).

Level three

In the third mode, the modality operates the matrix as a totality, transforming the fabrication into a digital media surface. The user, external or internal to the system, can employ the digital infrastructure to host digital displays*, through the use of the system's interfaces** . At this level, the modality retains its inherent relationship with the physical modality but dis-associates itself with the mail-box system. *(these are envisioned to vary in content, ranging from the functional to the poetic and from the figurative to the abstract, in a continuous fusion of image and text).**(both the terminal's software and the input device are designed to facilitate input for display purposes).

p.s. / emergence
The machine sets up both the digital and the formal modalities to become 'open' infrastructures. It deploys the fundamental layers of programming/habitation, and aims to encourage, but not determine, the generation of many more. We expect some to start materializing soon. In fact, a few already have - the fluorescent green tags we saw the other day. Some will be formal, others informal. Some physical, some digital. Emergent layers of habitation, appropriation, codification. The fabrication has become a multiplicity, full of possibilities….

Project Architects: Michael Cosmas, Hansy Better, Anthony Piermarini
Team: Harvard GSD Student Support
Text: Michael Cosmas

Metalworks: Boston Metal Fabricators