This week, we embark on a new design project in studio. The project will become a primitive dwelling, the architecture should respond to the human body in an essential way, the detailing should be drawn from precedents, and the design should be at least somewhat computational, based on variable parameters. The program is straightforward, which means we’re expected to invest heavily in the theoretical argument. Today I’m focused on research, an attempt to find that argument.
On friday, we were given a grab bag of ideas and individuals, as a starting point: Body measurement, anthropometry, chronophotography, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, Harold Edgerton, Henrey Dreyfuss, Frederick Kiesler, SHoP, Bill Massie, Office Da, Ali Rahim, NOX, Lynn, UN Studio, Dagmar Richter, dECOi, Loie Fuller, William Forscythe, Serialists, John Cage, Stockhausen, emergence, cloud phenomena, crowds, field conditions, D’Arcy Thompson, cellular automata, the game of life, etc.
With those topics, our recent discussions (about computer modeling as a design tool, parametric design as a method, and the cultural implications of digitization) and my own recent reading list (Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism, Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, Bertrand Russel’s A History of Western Philosophy), I’m starting to get a vague sense of what the project could really be about.
A few years ago, I bought Steven Wolfram’s A New Kind Of Science. Though he never explicitly states this, the intent of the book is apparently to demonstrate that the basic processes of nature consist of limited kinds of structures and operate by simple rules. All complexity arises as an emergent behavior. Consider that molecules can only combine in certain ways, based on their structure. In a primorrdial stew, there is therefore a limited number of possible combinations of molecules, some of which are self-replicating due to their physical form. These self-replicating molecules are then subject to generational variation, natural selection, and evolution. From the simple structure of atoms, and simple rules for their combination, all the complexity of life emerges.
From DeLanda, consider cities and urbanization as an emergent behavior of large populations. Their complexity arises from simple interactions between individuals. If we begin to sketch a Deluezean abstract machine for the emergent city, the diagram might look strikingly like a cellular automata graph.
If we combine the thought of Wolfram and DeLanda, we almost arrive at a new materialist philosophy. We can attempt to explain the structure of reality by looking at materials and flows, without resorting to metaphor.
Unfortunately, it is difficult (and pointless?) to translate this line of inquiry into architectural form.
- Assume nothing was designed by an idiot. Investigate strategies rigorously, regardless of your initial impression. Internalize successful techniques.
- Design an open-source modeling system for evolutionary architectural design. The software should allow for continuous parametric variation of individual formal elements, as well as an apparatus for breeding of unrelated forms. Should be capable of modeling complex heterogenous materials with widely variable properties. The software should include a sorting mechanism, allowing for elimination of offspring based on certain physical criteria, such as bearing capacity, insulating value, or visual transparency. Revit meets Rhinoscript?
- Investigate architecture not as visual language, but as a branch of cognitive psychology or neuroscience. Operating on a conscious level, architecture-as-language is either stupidly mimetic or unintelligibly abstract: neither extreme seems to result in a compelling spacial experience or profound cultural critique. Can architecture use subconscious visual perception pathways to effect certain emotional states? Can psychic comfort be quantified and therefore modulated by architecture? Can a linguistic model of architecture move past the easy metaphor of speech or writing to evolve into a nuanced visual/phenomenological language, more akin to sign language in its complexity? (Or has it already and I just don’t know about it?)
- Don’t use words or concepts you don’t understand.
This past weekend, I was in Philadelphia for a family reunion, and like any good architecture student, I made my family visit several Important Buildings. We hit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Shalom, Robert Venturi’s Mother’s House, and Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Center. After this quick tour, I tried to explain Venturi to my father, in a perhaps misguided attempt to learn a topic by explaining it. My admittedly sketchy view of this particular flavor of postmodernism is that the architect is engaged in a literary game. The modernist obsession with functionality and industrial aesthetics had resulted in sterile, emotionless, meaningless forms, and Venturi’s work was a reaction to that. If architecture is considered as a type of visual language with grammar, words, intonation, and cadence, then that language can be deconstructed, the goal being a formal complexity that restores emotion and ultimately meaning to architectural form. While the intent of this line of inquiry may have been an architectural equivalent of “Finnegan’s Wake,” the result is more often akin to a dirty limmerick. Standing outside Venturi’s Mother’s House, quietly contemplating the flat, lime green facade, I can’t see this as anything more than a joke, and a poor one at that.
Over the weekend, I spent a good amount of time catching up with my brother, who recently began working in a lab, doing research on cognitive neuroscience. His current research area is subconscious visual communication. This involves testing psychopaths, who apparently cannot pick up subtle visual clues from facial expressions, and therefore have trouble understanding an other person’s emotional state. Call it quantifying empathy.
A few days later, I discovered that a friend of mine is studying to become a sign language interpreter, and I realized that sign language is not merely mimetic of spoken language, but in fact has an extremely complex structure, with subtleties of grammar and expression that matches the complexity of any spoken language, if not exceeding it. So, if the apparatus of cognitive perception allows for subconscious visual cues that trigger emotional states, and if the linguistic capacity of the human brain allows for a complex visual language based on signs, can this be applied to archtiecture? Can the phenomenological experience of a space be therefore quantified and reproduced?
So, if the apparatus of cognitive perception allows for subconscious visual cues that trigger emotional states, and if the linguistic capacity of the human brain allows for a complex visual language based on signs, can this be applied to archtiecture? Can the phenomenological experience of a space be therefore quantified and reproduced?
In seminar yesterday our instructor (world-renowned architectural critic Jeffrey Kipnis) posed the following question: What does a ‘sustainable’ building look like? The answer: “What does a building with ‘electricity’ look like?”
This quick exchange was part of a broader discussion, but his immediate point was that green practices in architecture (and product design, and lifestyle, etc) are such a remarkably good idea that “sustainability” will quickly become codified, sweep the entire industry, and soon there will be no viable alternative, ethically, economically, or even legally. While this may be extreme, it is already happening: the explosion of LEED’s popularity over the past five years has shown that the industry is ready for these kind of laws, chomping at the bit to conform, voluntarily.
Once sustainability becomes the default, there will no longer be green buildings versus conventional, much as electricity, telephones, and computer networks have become ubiquitous. Since the majority of what makes a building green is material choice and construction practice, the law (or tax breaks) can do most of the work.
What remains is design.
Of course there are certain ways to design sustainably (daylighting and natural ventilation can contribute to lower energy costs and healthier, happier occupants), but these things have been known for centuries, and were in fact commonly employed devices until the modern hermetic box became the de facto diagram for our homes and offices. The history of architecture through the 1800s contains only green buildings. Compared to what often passes as green design (see most of William McDonough’s well-intentioned-yet-hideous work), the past looks pretty appealing.
Ultimately, Kipnis’s point seems to be this: Sustainability is not an end. It is not the goal of architecture to simply be sustainable, though sustainability is an increasingly necessary aspect of the field.
Is sustainability a sea change? Will the effect be as widespread as the introduction of electricity (which only proved viable by the extensive use of AC current and incandescent lighting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago)? Will it effect our built environment as much as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (which, along with the GI bill, led to the sprawling suburban conditions we see today)?
“Who was the first the posit that the planets move in elliptical orbits?”
My inner monologue goes: “Kepler. It was Kepler. Johannes Kepler?”
I wasn’t sure enough to speak up, but I was right. How did I know this? I’ve determined that though I know a good deal about the history of science, philosophy, and western thought in general, I don’t know enough to really have confidence about it in in-class discussions. So, I need to find a good book on this. The history of thought. The history of science. The history of philosophy. Any suggestions?
I’m essentailly looking for something that provides chronological biographies of the world’s most influential thinkers. I recently ordered the following two books, which may be tangentially related to this, but (I’m guessing) coming from more of a materialist, bottom-up viewpoint:
Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life, by Fernand Braudel.
New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity by Manuel Delanda
[Gottfried Semper, "Caribbean Hut"]
In studio, we continue to study Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, the Herbert Jacobs House I (1936) in particular. Our analysis is moving away from an examination of the subtly-differentiated “event space” of the main living area and moving on to the building envelope, considered as a kind of woven fabric wrapping, or a folded surface. This was and is a bit confusing to me, and I don’t know exactly where our instructor is going with this line of thought (an attempted re-imagining of the Semperian “Primitive Hut” diagram, with respect to Usonian-era FLW?). So this is the project for Wednesday: to continue “unfolding” the house, and to try to detect patterns and seams in the resulting fabric.
While I’m not sure how our immediate assignment relates, I am beginning to get a sense of the overall arc of the project, which will eventually culminate in a re-imagining of the Usonian house, making use of contemporary methods and materials.
A reductive interpretation of Gottfried Semper’s “Caribbean Hut” could yield the following elements, an expression of the essential in architecture:
1) Earthworks, the foundation,
2) Shelter, the roof,
3) Structure, beams and columns,
4) The woven wall, a nonstructural enclosure,
5) The hearth, the heart of the house.
While this diagram is fairly easy to spot in, say, Wright’s prairie houses (and even easier in the Chicago steel-frame skyscraper), in Usonia the diagram begins to break down: the woven walls thicken and become structural, the column elements are less distributed, they coalesce in large masonry pylons, the roof cantilevers, supported by the masonry units (but also somewhat by the wooden walls), the foundation is thinned and merges with the ground. Perhaps most importantly, the bounds of enclosure are pulled within the building envelope, and the extent of the building begins to blur.
Semper’s hut can be reduced even further, to the following diagram:
The building has a relationship to both the earth and the sky, but is not seen as a part of either. Bifurcation: even the earth and sky are distinct and separate.
A more nuanced worldview may result in the following diagram:
The distinction between the earth and sky begins to blur. Of course, the earth and sky participate in the same physical processes, the same ecosystems, and to consider them as distinct entities is somewhat naive, physically speaking. To reflect this appreciation of the interconnectivity of natural systems, the enclosing walls can also begin to blur, and the building begins to participate actively in natural processes. For an architecture to be “organic” or “ecological” it must necessarily participate in natural processes, whether that means allowing sunlight and air through the envelope, or allowing the construction materials to decay naturally.
To logically conclude, the building enclosure would become so indistinct as to be invisible, interior and exterior would lose all meaning, yet the building would still function as a mediator of the environment: it would still be occupiable, even if the boundaries are indefinite.
I believe that the project is working up to this: If we consider the Usonian house the best approximation of an ethereal, atmospheric, organic architecture thus far conceived, and the development along that line was only restrained by the limitations of methods and materials (wood, brick, glass) then we can conceivably continue that line of inquiry, using our more advanced tools and materials.
Using our 3D modeling software coupled with engineering packages, it is possible to create a building envelope that “works” due to its form and orientation, but what I find most intriguing is the possibility to investigate new materials. How would a structural wall made entirely of super-insulating aerogel look? What about carbon nanotubes as microcolumns? How can advancements in material science aid in the dematerialization of the wall? What can we learn from advanced fabrics? What “sustainable” materials could be used? Is there necessarily a distinction between the organic and the high-tech?
More on this project as it continues…