1980-1983: Armstrong Industries, “Smart Pavilion”

By the late 1970s, Michael Kalil’s interest in convertible spaces and the design potential of  kinetic floor structures led him to materials and fabrication research that broadened his creative horizons and raised his professional profile considerably.  In 1980, Kalil became involved with Armstrong World Industries, an international designer and manufacturer of floors, ceilings and cabinets, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Kalil participated in the “Twelfth Interiors Initiative Project”, a design study sponsored by Armstrong as a showcase for new furnishing materials. As part of this, he was granted a commission to design a prototype of an automated office space, to be installed in their Lancaster facility.

Seeing this as a golden opportunity to present the design potential of integrating of digital and mechanical technologies with human activities and environments, Kalil soon enlisted the assistance of several key associates- project manager, Marty Spiegel; lighting designer,  Peter Barna, and an engineering consultant, Mac MacArthur. Not surprisingly, project records indicate that quite a bit of collaborative planning went into the creation of this unique space.  By late 1983, the room was realized, and it received national press through feature articles in both Interiors, (May 1984), and Omni Magazine (“Special Anniversary Issue”; October, 1984).

Room Description & Design Elements:

Smart Pavilion under construction

Kalil’s “Smart Pavilion” was circular, 22 feet in diameter, with an inverted pyramid ceiling set with Armstrong “Soft Look” acoustical panels, and a hand-sensor activated, 54-inch diameter circular entrance portal that was framed by a tilted, square door. The walls were 7 foot-6-inch high, and lined with Armstrong “Sound Soak” acoustical fabric.  All upholstered areas were covered with Armstrong, “Silent Partner” carpet.

The real star of the show however, was a movable floor (in theory to be automated, but the prototype was manually adjustable) that was envisioned to contain hydraulic furniture that would rise from underneath the floor according to the needs of the room occupant. The floor was composed of 15 panels, each 12-inches wide (of a terrazzo-like material “Pavimar”, then prototyped by Armstrong), and 16-feet in total length.

Smart Pavilion Executive Seat

Important to note here is the fact that Kalil derived the proportions of the entire room plan from the 12-inch measurement of the Pavimar tiles. According to Kalil’s published remarks about his design programs, the application of proportional/incremental dimensions as taken from the spaces and materials that he worked with was a central aspect of his working method, and directly related to his close study of  sacred geometry.  Throughout this project (as well as many of his other designs), he was deeply committed to creating environments that fostered an intuitive and encompassing sense of ease and harmony via the integrated, geometric proportions of each individual design element.

Smart Pavilion, room in use

Visual elements were introduced to the room via four, 5-foot square, rear projection screens that were  positioned on the north, south, east and west perimeter of the floor. These were designed to display text and/or images (envisioned also to receive video or holographic transmissions). Perimeter lighting was also programmed to operate on a 24-hour basis, and would provide cyclical durations of simulated sun or moonlight, in accordance to the month, day, hour and year.

Upon entering the room, a computer keyboard would rise from the floor just inside of the doorway. This was meant to provide the ability to manipulate various pieces of hydraulic furniture to position as needed.  Kalil cleverly envisioned pieces of folding furniture to be designed along the lines of Japanese oragami, housed in very shallow, 7-inch subflooring. Perhaps due to mechanical complexities, budget and time constraints, ultimately only two pieces of furniture were actually installed- an “executive chair”, modeled after a backless, ergonomic kneeling chair, and an “executive bench”, which was essentially a chaise with an undulating profile.

The user could then enter the space and take a seat at the executive chair, positioned directly behind a horizontal “control bar”. The control bar was a complete re-envisioning of a computer keyboard; instead of typing in a command, the bar was meant to be touch sensitive. Depending on where the user lightly tapped the bar, in it’s “north/south” orientation, this would activate the screens to project either still images, videoconferencing or holographic transmissions.  When the bar was pivoted 90-degrees into an “east/west” orientation, this would prompt the executive bench to arise from the floor. Cylindrical heat sensors located on either side of the control bar would activate various color lighting schemes within the space, allowing the user to “paint the space” with a spectrum of colors, ranging from a warm, bright yellow to a deep indigo blue.

While previous to this commission, Kalil had successfully explored and prototyped some of his ideas regarding  manually movable floors and the use of geometric/incremental proportioning, the Armstrong “Smart Pavilion” was undoubtedly a significant moment in Kalil’s career. It likely marks the most comprehensive and technically ambitious expressions of his desire to seamlessly integrate digital technologies within an uncluttered, flexible and rigorously proportioned space.

In large part due to the success and notoriety of this project, Kalil was able to establish a unique working relationship with NASA’s Ames Research Center. Kalil and his associates were very eager to apply what they had learned from the design process of the terrestrial “Smart Pavillion” to the human factors involved with the creation of a habitation module for a low-earth oribt, international space station.

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2 Comments on “1980-1983: Armstrong Industries, “Smart Pavilion””

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