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Black boxes, knowledge gaps, and mystic abysses

Felix Hunter Green

Future Reference

‘Black Boxes’ serve a unique role in the contemporary imagination. From theatre design to aviation and AI platforms, the appearance of the language of black boxes tends to signify that a knowledge or understanding gap has either emerged or been engineered. This article uses both physical and digital examples to explore what the various faces of this fluid metaphor can teach designers about expectations of control and accountability in emerging digital contexts.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square (1915). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The computational metaphor of a black box is not associated with colour or form, but with the notion that a system’s output can not necessarily be deciphered by analysing its inputs. It operates as an unknowable function in the passage of information.

The public release of OpenAI’s artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot Chat-GPT has recently brought AI to the forefront of the public imagination. Alongside mass fascination with its capabilities and potential uses, its rollout has been accompanied by ardent discussions around the legibility, trustworthiness, accountability, and even agency of AI programmes. For specialists, these issues are far from new, and the design-inflected question of AI explainability has been a pressing concern for programmers and user-interface experts for some time [1].

These recent debates have seen a resurfacing of the language of ‘black boxes’ in a broad public forum. In this context, the phrase is often used critically to conceptualise an understanding gap between a system and its users. It refers to an unknowable space that emerges when a system cannot easily ‘show its working’ to either its users or designers. For many, an accusation of a platform either being or incorporating a black box relates to the impossibility of full control or oversight over it. This typically arises from a lack of comprehension of the inner workings of that system. Prompts go into a black box style algorithm, and information comes out, but the connection between the two cannot be fully understood, even by its programmers [2].

In other words, the computational metaphor of a black box is not associated with colour or form, but with the notion that a system’s output can not necessarily be deciphered by analysing its inputs. It operates as an unknowable function in the passage of information. The sense of it performing like a ‘box’ has little to do with storage, but rather relates to an intractable containment of hidden knowledge that creates ethically-significant problems of causality (cause and effect) and accountability. For similar, largely symbolic, reasons, the terminology of black boxes finds another well-known (mis)use in the field of aviation. Again, the persistent metaphor is associated with the containment of something, in this case, the rarefied information about events that transpired in the final minutes of an ill-fated aircraft. In both, a black box metaphor appears at a moment of uncertainty between causes and effects.

The design of theatre auditoriums can help to conceptualise some of the consequences of living with black boxes at a human scale and in a spatial sense. In his influential book Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, cultural theorist Jonathan Crary points to the adaptations that Richard Wagner made to the design of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth as a turning point in the dramatist’s ability to dominate audience attention [3]. This purpose-built festival hall, opened in 1876, saw Wagner make now-famous infrastructural interventions that would, he hoped, encourage his audiences to engage with the fictional worlds presented onstage in a more absorbed, even hypnotic way. Removing the sideways facing booths from the seating, visually shielding his orchestra from the audience and dimming the lights in the auditorium are perhaps the best cited examples of the type of adaptations he demanded.

Festspielhaus Bayreuth. User: 4077 at wikivoyage shared, CC BY-SA 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Crary, however, emphasises the significance of a less well-known innovation, an optical effect that would go on to be known as Wagner’s ‘mystic abyss’, in achieving a desired totalising engrossment of his audience in the presented scene [4]. This effect – the ‘mystic abyss’ – refers to the intentional insertion of unknowable distance between the stage space and auditorium achieved by separating the two with a series of receding, perspective-distorting proscenium arches. This intervention disrupted all continuous sight lines between stage space and the auditorium, thus perceptively and epistemologically severing the visual bonds between real space and fiction. In so doing, the mystic abyss demanded that audience members undergo a more fully-realised abandonment within the scene presented. They were encouraged to ‘pick a side’ between fiction and reality in a perceptive sense.

Contemporary black box theatres, arguably and ironically, represent a move away from these hallucinatory priorities. While on the one hand, some elements carry an inheritance from Wagner and early modern scenographers (their blank flexibility, typically low house-lighting and matt-black surfaces that visually privilege the fictional space on stage) on the other hand, their frequent ‘in the round’ layout means that their audiences tend to be more self-aware and often have the impression of sharing the event space with the performers. Again, the metaphorical name black box does not refer to their colour or shape, but rather to a more generalised aesthetic of containment of a space of fiction in a self-consistent interiority (box), supported by a humility of the playing space that bends to meet the various fictions that inhabit it (black). Unlike Wagner’s passive, hypnotised audiences, stripped of autonomy – if we are to follow Crary on this – these groups inhabit the same forum as the performers [5]. In this case, the ‘suspension of disbelief’ tends to be requested rather than insisted upon as the border of the theatrical universe is situated close to the entrance to the auditorium rather than between proscenium arches.

In a theatrical black box – unlike an AI-powered chatbot or a flight responder – the human element is ‘on the inside’, sharing a space and collaborating somewhat in the event that is live theatre. It might be hard to convey the full essence of what happens within a temporary theatrical universe to someone who never saw the show, but each event is always a joint venture.

The question of explainability in AI is not a settled issue in computer science, with some developers believing that too much potential is lost in the process of making an algorithm fully explainable to humans. In the context of these decisions being made away from the public forum, it is important for the rest of us to consider what costs must be paid in terms of accountability and autonomy in exchange for the enchantment and wonder earned across a mystic abyss.

AI-generated image created using Open-AI’s DALL-E platform. Prompt: ‘people inside a black box on a German hillside’.

In a theatrical black box – unlike an AI-powered chatbot or a flight responder – the human element is ‘on the inside’, sharing a space and collaborating somewhat in the event that is live theatre. It might be hard to convey the full essence of what happens within a temporary theatrical universe to someone who never saw the show, but each event is always a joint venture.

Future Reference is a time capsule. It features opinion-pieces that cover the current developments, debates, and trends in the built environment. Each article assesses its subject through a particular lens to offer a different perspective. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact

Future Reference is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.


  1. AI Explainability or Explainable AI (XAI), as a principle refers to the practice of developing AI systems whose decision-making and reasoning can be accessed and interpreted by human users.
  2. A very thorough outline of this discussion can be found at:
  3. Wagner made adaptations to architect Gottfried Semper’s unrealised designs for a similar theatre, reportedly without Semper’s permission. See:
  4. J. Crary, Suspensions of Perception, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2001, p. 252.
  5. J. Crary, 2001, p. 253.


Felix Hunter Green

Felix Hunter Green works for the Irish Architecture Foundation in Dublin. Prior to this, he completed a PhD in Cultural Studies from the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. His research focused on immersive technologies, immersive environments, and related design practices. He taught modules in Architectural Theory (MA) and Design Informatics (MA). Earlier still, he worked in theatre design and production.

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Material change: a non-violent approach to our built environment

Rachel Loughrey
Future Reference
Rachel Loughrey
Cormac Murray

Virgin materials are any materials extracted directly from nature that lead to destructive impacts: trees being ripped from the ground, soil contamination, illness, and pollution. It takes an abundance of energy to process these materials and can, in some circumstances, lead to a displacement of communities. In a linear economy, the focus is on single-use and permanent disposal of materials. In the context of the climate and biodiversity crisis, these methods will have devastating future consequences. According to the World Economic Forum, the effects of the climate and biodiversity crisis are seen as the top tier risks for the next ten years and beyond [1].

An example of this is evident in the process of creating aluminium. The mining of bauxite, the ore needed to produce aluminium, has been linked to deforestation, community displacement, and environmental destruction in places such as the Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, China, and West Africa [2]. As bauxite is found near the earth’s surface, bauxite mines strip large areas of land, frequently impacting local ecosystems and communities. Bauxite refining creates an alkaline waste product called ‘red mud’ that contains heavy metals and other elements.  If the waste is not stored correctly and enters local water sources, it can be harmful to humans.

There is a non-violent and earth friendly alternative: using reclaimed materials. A key advantage offered by reclaimed materials is they require minimal to no reprocessing. Shifting to prioritising reclaimed materials would foster a circular economy, a nature-based system which would be regenerative. In a circular economy, materials never become waste – and waste production is considered an avoidable design flaw. Members of the construction industry need to constantly ask where a material is extracted from, and what is its end-of-life strategy. Asking shows a conscious approach, where we care about respecting the earth and leaving a liveable planet for future generations. Asking shows we understand climate justice, and how people who are suffering the most from the climate crisis have done very little to cause it. Asking shows an awareness that we, as members of the construction industry, are part of the problem currently, and shows a desire to become part of the solution for the climate and biodiversity crises.

Cleared forestry by Alan Hughes (via Wikimedia Commons)

Three main challenges exist for this non-violent approach to materials. These are, namely, psychological, practical, and regulatory challenges.

Psychologically, we need to accept that the way we are building now is harmful, and while changing to using reclaimed materials is not going to be comfortable for those in the industry, change is rarely comfortable. However, with a growing consciousness of the devastation caused by the climate crisis, key players within the construction industry are beginning to reflect on where materials come from, and the social and environmental impact of the extraction of these materials.

The practical challenge is tracking, storing, and quantifying the sustainability of our materials. We can start with establishing material passports, that will give materials an identity and help to map out elements that are being removed from buildings for refurbishment projects. We need to remove demolition out of our standard construction vocabulary and replace it with conscious deconstruction. We also need the state to provide storage for reclaimed construction materials, as is happening right now in Germany [5]. This will lead to an ease of use of reclaimed materials.

On a governmental level, we need the regulatory framework to be immediately updated – the regulations currently serve the linear economy, with reclaimed materials not being stated or encouraged in the documentation. There is scope in Section 1.1 ( c ) of the Technical Guidance Document D: Materials and Workmanship that enables materials to be reused under specific conditions, but we need the state to provide funding for anexisting secondary material marketplace (such as the Irish Green Building Council’s Construction Materials Exchange). In cases where demolition is absolutely unavoidable, planning compliance should mandate that a pre-demolition audit is carried out and that high-value materials are given a material passport and to be either directly transported to another live site or stored (temporarily) to be reused in the future.

Photograph of construction materials on site, image by Rachel Loughrey.

Ultimately, we need support from everyone in the industry to do this. Most individuals in construction could start immediately, by following these steps:

1. Observing how we build now.

2. Assessing the damage caused by extracting materials.

3. Examining alternatives such as using reclaimed construction materials.

4. Requesting that manufacturers, design teams, and the government use unharmful ways of building, so we can protect the environment we are part of.

As the forward-thinking activist bell hooks stated in her book The Will to Change: "The way things are is not the way they have to be" [6] We can change how we relate to the earth, and our disconnect to the materials with which we build. We need to advocate for non-violence, lean into the will to change together, and make a concerted effort to build with reclaimed materials.

Future Reference

There is a violent nature to the way we build today. Instead of using circularly-sourced, reclaimed elements, our built environment has normalised using virgin materials with associated destructive and damaging practices. Through changing our production and sourcing of materials, how can we transition from a linear economy to a circular one?


Reading Capel Street

Robin Fuller
Future Reference
Robin Fuller
Cormac Murray

Dublin’s Capel Street is like the airport: a place where languages mingle. At the airport, signs for arrivals and departures carry the names of distant places, and on Capel Street, the signs above shops, restaurants and cafés do the same: Moldova, Marrakech, Ephesus. Space is dislocated by these international arrivals. Hà Nội Hà Nội comes twice; Tokyo is smuggled in with a pun (eaTokyo). The Spanish send only A Taste Of Spain. It’s hard to know where one is when on Capel Street, among consumable simulacra of the world’s cultures; the shop on the corner of Strand Street insists that this is Real Brazil.

On Capel Street, writing systems from different cultures speak with and over each other, translate and misunderstand each other, inviting and excluding readers. On restaurant facades and on the packaging of imported products, graphic utterances in Arabic script, Chinese characters, Korean Hangul, and the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets call to the consumers of Capel Street.

Printed signage to the interior of Super Asia Foods

Often the languages come in pairs. On the fascia of Hilan Chinese & Korean Restaurant, the largest text – 海兰江 – will not be understood by many passersby but will be recognised as an indication of Chinese cuisine. Hilan offers Chinese writing for the illiterate anglophone to consume, while around the corner on Strand Street, the Chinese and English sign for Fly Star Design & Print / 星飞 告印刷 lets Chinese customers know that this establishment speaks their language. Discretely tucked into the corners of shop windows and menus, handwritten and untranslated Chinese, Moldovan, and Portuguese notices reveal linguistic communities in private conversation.

On Capel Street, writing systems start to behave like one another. At Korean restaurant Arisu / 아리수, the red and blue taegeuk symbol from the South Korean flag moves from the dot on ‘i’ to the circle in ‘아’. At Marrakesh, the flowing forms rendering the words ‘Restaurant & Karaoke’ would have us believe they spoke Arabic (there is one true Arabic word on the door: حلال / Halal). The multiscribal grapholect of Capel Street is most perfectly embodied in the name of the beauty salon, U美. Transliterated on the sign as YOUMEI, it means, roughly, ‘you are beautiful’. Like all Chinese characters, 美 stands for a syllable-length sound (‘mei’) and a meaning (beautiful). In U美, ‘U’ works in the same way: it stands for a meaning (the second person) and a syllable-length sound (‘you’).

Dual language signage to the exterior of YOUMEI beauty salon

Capel Street is linguistically diverse, but not equal. Irish might be a minority language, but it’s one of only two languages on official signs issuing orders that you must obey or risk arrest. At the beginning of the last century, when an independent Irish national identity was first forged, it was essential to distinguish Irishness from Englishness. The published proceedings of the first sitting of Dáil Éireann in 1919 used two typefaces: a standard one for English and French, and for Irish, a nineteenth-century Frankenstein of historical sources. We find remnants of this crumbling artefact of Irish national identity whenever the State speaks to us on Capel Street. The large, round uppercase ‘A’  on a sign reading ‘Ach amháin Tramana / Except Trams’ is there to remind us of the Book of Kells. Stranger still: that’s not a seven in the middle of the Irish for ‘Pay & Display — Íoc  Taispeáin,’ but a Tironian et: a symbol from a Roman system of shorthand used by eighth- and ninth-century monks in island monasteries off the British Isles. Capel Street is a strange place in a strange country.

With official expressions of national identity come others, offering competing conceptions. At The Boar’s Head florid faux-historical letterforms are used to pitch a commodified Irishness to pint swillers. There are unofficial political nationalisms speaking on Capel Street too. Affixed to a lamppost at the corner of Mary Street is a corriboard sign reading, ‘Remembering our Republican Heroes. 100th anniversary of the death of IRA Vol. Matthew Tompkins, who was fatally wounded at this location by Free State forces on 30 June 1922’. More than it purports to be, the sign memorialises the ideology of another time, when hardline nationalists were still upset with Michael Collins.

On most streets in Dublin’s city centre, the lampposts and bollards are saturated with the stickers of ‘Ultra’ soccer supporters and fringe activists, but the political neutrality of Capel Street is upheld by cleaners who peel away the proclamations stickered to surfaces the night before. However, if you look closely, you can find traces lingering in half peeled stickers of another, emerging figuration of Irish identity: ‘our past, our freedom, our future, our watch’; a line from Padraig Pearse – ‘Ireland belongs to the Irish’ – originally written to oppose despotic British landlordism, ripped from its nineteenth-century Irish historical context; a paradoxically, generic ethno-nationalism fed on American memes, symptomatic of the global flattening of culture it purports to oppose. Meanwhile, among Capel Street’s confusion of scripts, Babel Academy of English is training international students in a powerful weapon which may ultimately be Capel Street’s undoing: the English language.

Political and commercial expressions of national identity often appeal to ideas of permanence and clear distinction, but when we read and look at the texts of Capel Street, we see Irish and global cultural identities in transition and negotiation.

Future Reference

The texts we encounter in the environment – on road signs and shop windows – carry information about our culture, not just through words, but in their form and position in the environment. On Capel Street in Dublin’s city centre, we find the world’s writing systems speaking at once, inviting and excluding readers. Within this cornucopia of grammatologically-embodied cultures, the history and future of Irish national identity is expressed and contested.


So near from home: the enduring legacy of twentieth-century holiday villages

Kate Hunter Hanley
Future Reference
Kate Hunter Hanley
Cormac Murray

The holiday as we know it today arose in the last century during the post-war era with the rise of globalisation. Instigated by the economic boom felt in Europe and the US, and the availability of commercial flying, the idea of mass tourism developed. The exclusivity of travel dissolved and offered holiday experiences to a wider audience. This new wave of global movement was felt in Ireland with Aer Lingus enrolling the charm and mysticism of the small Celtic Island, attracting visitors with slogans such as "Holiday in friendly Ireland: So near from home, so far from care", "For the most romantic holiday of your life; fly with Aer Lingus to Ireland", and "Ireland: Fisherman’s Paradise" [1].

Typically, a holiday village is constructed for overseas visitors, often in picturesque locations. Accommodation is typically supported by adjoining facilities enabling the village to become self-sufficient [2]. They are not intended to be permanent dwellings, but temporary experiences of a leisure lifestyle, in contact with nature and other people, sometimes taking the form of a ‘micro-city’ [3]. The success of the holiday village typology is undisputedly linked to the spread of prefabricated construction methods and the principles of mass production during the 1950s, enabling low-cost, speedy construction.

Castlepark in Kinsale, Cork, was a holiday village designed by architect Denis Anderson in the early 1970s. In an era when modern architecture was undergoing a reckoning, with architects and the public exploring more traditional alternatives to exposed concrete, steel, and glass, Castlepark was much-feted in the architectural community as a potential solution. It integrated modern design with traditional elements and the local environment [4]. A scheme of twenty-five houses, of which only nineteen were built in the mid-1970s, it was situated on a sloping landscape overlooking Kinsale Harbour. The architecture of the buildings disguised the modern dwellings as a cluster of modest vernacular cottages with innovative roof profiles and roof lights allowing more generous internal lighting [5].

Castlepark, Kinsale. Photograph by Kate Hunter Hanley, July 2021.

The 1978 Trabolgan holiday village, again in Cork, is a less-celebrated architectural precedent but would grow to be a very commercially successful one. The holiday village was designed by Brady Shipman Martin, who also provided landscaping services. While Trabolgan’s origins as a holiday village began in the 1940s, it underwent significant expansion when purchased by a Dutch Coal and Metal Industry Pension Fund in 1975.  Ironically, it was a Dutch company that would finance the restoration and clearance of the surrounding woodland. Architecture in Ireland magazine described how "the house units echo the traditional building forms of the area while offering modern standards of comfort and convenience" [6]. Its original target market during this period was for "continental visitors" [7].

Aesthetically, the original holiday village bears some resemblance to Castlepark, with white-washed walls and dark asbestos slate roofs. The original cluster of holiday homes were organised around three courtyards. In a forward-thinking vision for the era, cars were prohibited from entering the centre of the village, perhaps recreating a calmer, historic feel. In later years, some of these courtyards were converted to parking courts.

1500 kilometres away, high in the Veneto region of the Dolomites, one will find a peculiar community tucked unassumingly under the sheer face of Monte Anteloe. Villaggio Eni was a purpose-built holiday complex for the employees of Eni (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi), Italy’s leading multi-national oil company. Planned as a complete living environment for ENI’s employees to sojourn, the village is rooted in a social construction that symbiotically benefits the employees and employer. Modest in appearance and organisation, Villaggio Eni generates a distinctive architecture reflecting its Dolomite surroundings, reiterating its community ethos and revering in functionality. On a much greater scale than the Irish precedents, it features a variety of architectural features and community infrastructure [8].

Austrian-Italian architect Eduardo Gellner was tasked with translating Eni’s vision into an architectural agenda. Gellner combined lessons from English landscape gardens and Olivettian urban planning, in a new form of Alpine regionalism [9]. Mattei hoped for a complex structure that could be appreciated by "technicians and connoisseurs", yet understandable to all [10]. Critic Bruno Zevi insists that the following architectural moves underpin Villaggio Eni’s success; these become particularly interesting when compared with the Irish precedents:

      Insertimento nel paesaggio – Insertion into the landscape.

      Organismo urbano – Urban organisation.

      Ambiente communitario – Community environment.

      Espressione architettonica – Architectural expression [11].

Today, the wider public beyond Eni employees can visit and stay in several of its accommodation types. Dolomiti Contemporanee, an art organisation working on the prioritisation of the Dolomites’ physical and cultural importance, launched Progetto Borca in 2014. The project enables new readings to be undertaken of both Villaggio Eni and its neighbouring villages, and proposes an expansion of their function beyond solely tourism. Such organisations enable holiday villages to engage and contribute to their long-term preservation and future. The adaptation of Eni Villaggio has allowed it to retain continuity, function, and perhaps most arguably, relevance. Their initiative emphasises how facilitated studies of holiday villages can assist in their reintroduction into today's world and enable further insight into aspects of twentieth-century life.

The economic success of the Center Parcs holiday resort in Co. Longford demonstrates that today, holiday villages do have to function as micro-cities to compete with the AirBnB market and the convenience of the city break. The transient nature of holiday villages presents itself as a valuable characteristic to interrogate how our existing holiday architecture can be reimagined. As demonstrated in Eni, it does not take a lot to begin reaffirming these places into the twenty-first century. Through understanding, enhancing, and preserving our existing holiday villages, we may even encounter a new, nuanced approach to leisure; just as the typology originally so amply provided. One could hope for a national programme of documenting and reviving small-scale holiday villages in Ireland that would generate vibrancy throughout the country, helping us understand our recent past and adapt for our uncertain future.

Future Reference

The typology of the holiday village surged in popularity in post-war Europe. Typically organised in small clusters of dwellings, these villages gave short-term visitors fleeting, authentic-seeming experiences of being embedded in a community, often close to nature. Using examples from Ireland and Italy, this article explores the legacy of these villages and their relevance to today.



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