Algorithms

At approximately the same period I was completing my graduate degree in architecture, I began to notice the trend towards “generative architecture” or “script-driven design” in the work of avant garde designers.

Nostalgia for the Infinite

In this arena, a computer-interpreted algorithm generates the form, placement, or other characteristics of elements within the greater building design, replacing the arbitrary decisions of the designer (or even the client) with a seemingly-relentless mathematical imperative, or even with a modicum of response-to-stimulus that hints at artificial intelligence.

In more prosaic terms: the “script-kiddie” plugs in the formula, hits “go”, and–Bingo!–wild shapes. There might be other motives inferred by the designer/scripter, but the eye-candy (swoop-y, chunky, Voronoi-bubbly, stringy, or strongly-reminiscent-of-spilled-intestines…the cool-not-much-like-your-parents’-buildings-shape-factor) is — or was — clearly in the driver’s seat, as far as I can tell.

I write was — for it seems to me now, years later, that this trend may have peaked, resulting in very few realized projects but quite a great deal of beguiling imagery, cool-not-much-like-your-parents’-buildings.

Even if it is fading away, succumbing to the inevitable deliberate floccinaucinihilipilification fated for such ideas by the arbiters of architectural taste, I still find notion that this form of architectural design troubling, or at least challenging.

One of my more unpleasant lecturers in while I was in architecture school seemingly built his career around the notion that architectural meaning was in fact equivalent to the design process.  As long as there was a rigorous procedure followed with rigor that resulted in a design (rigor mortis?), questions of “What does it mean?” can be dispensed with forever. If you stripped his “voice of darkness” spiel of its ridiculous aggrandizement and all-encompassing obfuscation,  you could summarize him thus: what-it-means is equivalent to how-it-came-to-be.

I never really agreed with that.  It’s merely a trivial substitution of one question that is easier to answer conclusively for the original that might have no answer at all, or at least not a sensible answer that can adequately be expressed in human language.  And why it is necessary to even have a sensible answer in human language?  Why not be satisfied with hints and fragmentary visions, ghosts of something beyond expression?

I feel that this algorithmic design, or script-driven form, or whatever we decide to name it, is merely a digital elaboration on my lecturer’s thesis. The process-substituted-for-meaning is now a mathematical formula, or group of formulas, deciphered and executed with architectural elements through a rigid system of if-then-else-elseif clauses by a mechanism.

The method is now a manifestation of mathematics. The meaning is now math.

Why is this so appealing?  It’s like an oddly pervasive remnant of that hoary religion of Pythagoras’, which in previous generations manifested itself as obsession with proportions and Golden Rules and Modulars: numbers and mathematical relationships are perfect, independent of and unaffected by our silly “meatspace” foibles, and thus deserving of our veneration, as only deities can be perfect. A building whose shape is defined by mathematical relationships is by extension also deserving of our veneration…more than one that is not so defined, anyway. There is something quite appealing in the metaphysics:  there is a ideal world, where all form is crystallized in invariable relationships, and mathematics can reveal it behind our messy everyday and petty aesthetic notions. And with mathematics we can embed some of that perfection — a worshipful hint of the ideal — in our designs intended for this flawed reality.

Maybe. I suspect that the “harmony” some people claim to find in certain relentlessly-mathematics-ized buildings is there because they expected it (having been told beforehand it was there), and not because there is some perceptible channel, thanks to the form-generating algorithm, to some idealized mundus alter.

Nevertheless I occasionally spend a little time playing with form-through-scripts. Channeling some angry forgotten Dadaist, I decided here to forgo the swoopy organics and set the thing to position sheets of plywood and various typical sizes of wood studs. I press the button and:

Instant Shantytown

Instant super-sized high-rise favela in space! Hurray! I’ll take that instead of some giant pile of animal innards any day! (Many architects extol endlessly the shanty towns with their creative use of materials, as long as we don’t have to live there ourselves.)

Well, of course it isn’t really a  shanty town. The generator isn’t that intelligent; it doesn’t know that you need a door here, a leaking roof there, an open sewer drain here. I could tweak the script forever until it came closer to producing the “real thing”, or its ideal. I really don’t know what the script does — not being a mathematician and barely having any programming skills to speak of — but if I change a variable here or an operator there, the results mutate.  It’s almost a  form of roulette, in a way. I could do this until I understand how the the script generates the forms, or until I hit by accident perfection. But it’s easier to just casually fool around for a few moments, get something that looks promising, and “manually” remove the chunks that look really non-believable (studs that punch through sheets, etc.).  An evocative image, but is this a reflection of a worshipful crystalline super-reality behind our quotidian?

Of course not. This is what we do, what all of the “generative architects” do whether or not they recognize their modus operandi: run the script — edit the results of the script (because mathematics make no allowance for human needs), and pretend the results frame an alternate metaphysics, one beyond the banal “beyond” of typical (and typically unquestioned) idealized worlds.

Here’s an idealized mundus alter of plywood, studs, and badly-welded, gravity-defying steel tubes:

Nostalgia for the Infinite

Think of this as a petty homage to de Chirico, specifically The Nostalgia of the Infinite of 1912. His anti-Aristotelean Metaphysics, after all, seemed to consist of a world crystallized around towers, shadows, lonely plazas, and the fragments and trash that might be found therein.

August 20th, 2008
Categories: Artwork, Other Creative Work, Technical
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