Curvilinear or straight…is it a matter of preference? Is it the stylistic will of the architect who imposes their desired form upon society? Why is it that architecture traditionally tends to be manifested in straight lines, rectilinear massing and 90 degree angles? If a curve is introduced, then it is typically an arc, circle, or sphere derived from rudimentary platonic solids. If there is an angle to disrupt the perfect 90 degree box, it is seen as a roof or derived from some quality in the site. Why are windows and doors square, walls vertical, and floor slabs horizontal? Is it a direct consequence of the construction industry, mass producing straight pieces that are later assembled into the buildings of yesterday? Is it performance based following the laws of gravity in terms of vertical loads? Is it because people need flat horizontal surfaces to exist upon? Is it because we are used to seeing buildings in straight and rectilinear arrangements which give us a sense of familiar comfort stemming from cities of the past.
Other industrial realizations of mankind are not restricted to this prescribed ruleset. Taking a look at transportation; cars and boats, are designed for performance and style, being mass produced and continually evolving. Planes and trains are designed for aerodynamics and efficiency. Small objects such as electronics and media devices are sculpted and shaped based on functional and aesthetic requirements, but not restricted to the bulk of assembly found in buildings and construction materials. Why is architecture so far behind in terms of form?
When an interesting architectural proposal is conceived with irregular curvilinear form, or a complex network of smooth surfaces and natural shapes, why is it seen by the layperson as ‘something out of a science fiction movie’? Why is there such resistance to receive architecture that escapes traditional methods of conception and representation?
Taking a look at nature and natural systems, straight lines and box-like forms are no where to be found…except at the horizon, a distant and infinitely unattainable threshold. No matter how far you travel toward the horizon, you will not reach it, until you escape the confines of the planet and see the straight line is really a curve. Does the straight line represent order and man’s dominance over nature? Does it recall the power of an industrially advanced civilization? What about a digitally advanced one? Can form-generation escape a designer’s prescribed realization? Can there be an architecture that conceives its own form? Even with advanced digital methods of generating form, there may be unforeseen outcomes, but there is still the matter of preference and decision. The manifestation is restricted to the logic and constraints of the designer’s will. Even if the object itself is not designed, the code that generates the form is. Ultimately, all formed objects are formed…by a designer. So, is it a matter of preference?…
“Skaters by their very nature are urban guerrillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.”
– CraigStecyck, 1976
The skateboarder in the metropolis is an urban warrior of a different kind. The perception of the city that comes from this user group is loaded with a specificity of seeking, combined with creativity, athleticism, and a rebellious counter culture. Public space in the city takes on new identities when viewed through the mind of a skater. The search for new ‘spots’ is endless and the ability to adapt to any environment is unrelenting. For the skater the entire city is a usable terrain. Design elements intended for sitting, landscape, changes in elevation or public safety become obstacles of opportunity for grinding, sliding and clearing that can be combined and with any array of tricks limited only by the technical skill, confidence, and will of the skater.
The stair, for example, is a very necessary and basic element of architecture. In urban design, it is historically used to represent a sense of monumental grandeur, it functionally connects areas of different elevation bringing people from one place to another, and in design it offers a scale and flexibility to the designer that can adapt to any situation. The pedestrian uses the stair for access or seating and within a public plaza can offer a place of hesitation to observe the interchange of the community. But the skateboarder sees the stair in a whole new light as a challenge to experience, an opportunity to practice, and a place to express creativity. A simple set of stairs with a good landing and runway can tempt skaters to push the boundaries of their own existence and inspire a creative act that transcends typical movements of the body through space. Add a rail, a curb or a ledge and the potential for the application and combination of tricks becomes limitless increasing the possibility of new perceptions through space. Every element in every corner of the city offers a potential arena for the sport multiplied thousands of times throughout an urban fabric.
The movement of skateboarding changes the parallax of the city. The ability to roll at speed alters the viewpoint continuously. The skater is not bound by the separation of car and pedestrian, but can roll seamlessly between street and sidewalk. The fluid and dynamic motion of skateboarding propels the body through space. The loud rumble of urethane wheels, and the distinct ‘clack’ of the ollie announces the presence of a skateboard from a distance and turns the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians. This audible presence also influences the perception of the skater causing a reaction of indifference to the surrounding social context. In this sense, the skateboarder like the architect, exists outside the constructs of society and is free to experiment and explore. But unlike the architect, the skater exists free to reinterpret the function and use of spatial sequences for their own expression and enjoyment.
Skateboarding is an individual activity expressed as an extension of self. It is a creative act that is as specific and unique as each skater’s persona and style. As an art form, it can be elegant, smooth, effortless and beautiful… yet at the same time it can be aggressive, intense, bold, and in your face. As a sport, the physical body is pushed to a level of coordination and conditioning as real as the concrete, stone and asphalt surfaces that break and bruise the body which fails to roll away after attempting a maneuver. The adrenaline of each attempt and the reward of rolling away pushes each skater to pursue the act, focus the mind and succeed. Unlike organized sport, there is no winner or loser in skateboarding, it is the process that counts, not the result. Skating is an individual sport and its style is an act of self expression, but it is fueled through the social interaction and competition driven camaraderie that a group dynamic provides. Skaters roll in packs, pushing each other through performance and praise to break new boundaries and experience the urban criteria through a new interface of exchange. This social construct becomes a representation of a new type of family unit, providing support and validation for a user group that is often seen as problematic through the eyes of a corporate, capitalist society.
The skateboarding culture emerged during the mid 1970s in southern California as an extension of a surf culture, but quickly took on a lifestyle of it’s own. It represented an energy and urban radicalism that has classified skateboarding as an alternative to the mainstream. Within the context of the city, the skateboarder can still be regarded as a public nuisance by property owners, patrons and pedestrians being ushered away by security guards and harassed by the law. The pursuit of skateboarding and its attitude directed against the grain leaves a clear mark on the architecture of the city. The tracks of skate spots can be seen on waxed curbs, walls, ledges and rails left to be revisited at another time. Seen by some as vandals, skaters leave behind hints of the alternative uses provided by urban spaces that enrich the fabric of the urban jungle. Conditioned to appear at moments when there is the least resistance, skateboarders are urban guerrillas seeking an environment in which to practice their medium.
One of the many things that architecture and urbanism can learn from this integral user group is the flexibility and adaptability of using sequences of prescribed space. Another is the understanding of alternate perceptions through experimentation. These ideas can be utilized to create changes that may introduce completely new trajectories of architectural thinking.
When speaking of context architecturally, it is referring to the surrounding character of buildings, landmarks, street patterns, or geography such as land forms, topography or bodies of water. In an urban condition, it is considered by some to be “good design” when a newly planned project relates to adjacent or nearby buildings with similar materials, fenestration patterns, height datum lines, etc. that exist in the area. Planning zones and guidelines are typical to control these situations and ensure some sense of “contextualism” when new buildings are being introduced. This idea of “fitting in” with what already exists, seems to be the very thing that holds architecture to a slow rate of progression.
If architecture is to be a catalyst for the advancement of human culture, then new buildings should not continually relate to the old and banal fabric of existing conditions. Architects must resist the socially accepted practices of blending in…or disappearing without changing anything, when making proposals for a better tomorrow. If we continue to build for the same old today, and often times yesterday, then how can we expect to adopt new ways of thinking and new methods of action through new patterns of behavior? This notion doesn’t suggest that every building be different merely for the sake of being different. But operating within similar boundaries of rules, architects can create environments that challenge the notion of context.
If one thing is certain, that is change is inevitable. This includes change in terms of context. At the scale of the individual, context becomes a continuous flow of sensory information. The shifting of bodies and vehicles on the city street, the sounds of machinery operating or ambient music in a storefront, the smells of a restaurant or the garbage bin in the alley, all are contextual at this scale. Context can be considered the furniture one is surrounded with, the objects on that furniture, the electrical pulses that command the light and the dark, the invisible waves of information that beam conversation to the cell phone and data to the laptop, even the white noise coming from the earbuds of someone’s ipod sitting next to you on the subway. Context is never static. But when making an envelope to contain these contextual events, the architect (many times) offers a static box that relates to other static boxes. Can these static proposals that contain an untold variety of different scalar contexts be considered “good design”. Is there some other way to shelter the activities of society that represents the complexity and continual change that occurs behind the blank facade? Can the very idea of context become a fractal operation of self-similar parts between the individual (micro) and the building (macro)?
This is the challenge for the architect of tomorrow.
During a period of industrial revolution and mechanization, there remained a thread of discourse that was interested in biological systems. Roughly 100 years ago, modernism was emerging in architecture through implementation of the then current technological innovations. New methods of mass production and new high-strength, light-weight materials were deployed to shape a modern world of tomorrow fitted with the latest conveniences for modern life. Advocates of the movement were inspired by the efficient technology of the machine. Transportation vehicles such as the airplane, automobile, and ocean liner enabled man to travel great distances, which previously took days or weeks on horseback, in a relatively short time. Production and manufacturing had achieved massive efficiency. Science had taken the place of philosophy in terms of logic and thinking. Architect’s searched for ways to build with the same functionality, creating “machines”, as Le Corbusier put it, “for living in.”
We know all too well the history of European modernism that rose from a post-war environment of necessity, and then immigrated to America to first become a symbol of capitalism, then corporate power in the skyscraper, then mutated with classicism for ‘aesthetic’ purposes, and ultimately classified into ‘styles’ referred to as ‘functionalism’, ‘minimalism’, or ‘international style’…etc. It is becoming more and more prevalent and widely used by designers who reject notions of ornamentation and classical architecture, often called ‘traditional’. These are not new ideas, in fact they are quite old, and the canon of ‘modern architecture’, using platonic solids and pure geometrical forms has replaced the renaissance as the ‘traditional’.
Just as the modernists of last century were inspired by the technology of their day, so are the architects of the 21st century. Over the past decade or two, advances in computation and software development has given new tools to designers, resulting in a proliferation of form generation with increasing geometrical complexity. Advances in the fields of robotics, genetic research, and artificial intelligence inspire architects to design and ultimately build with the sophistication of intelligent organisms. Natural systems are researched bringing a bio-mimetic generation to form-giving and architectural design. As early as 1968, computational systems such as the Lindenmayer system (after the Hungarian biologist, Aristid Lindenmayer), were developed to simulate natural growth and branching through a recursive process. Today, computational software enables architects to deploy and manipulate similar logics to building design.
Some may discard this trajectory as unimportant, reacting only to a visual impulse. Many morphological productions and explorations have been classified as ‘blobs’, and regarded to as unbuildable, digital art. The research is still relatively experimental and considered an infant, though manufacturing capabilities are rapidly being developed to realize the designs. CAM techniques using computer numeric controlled (CNC) milling, water or laser cutting is enabling the work to translate from a cyber environment into a physical one. Just as the pioneers of the modern movement made proposals for a new tomorrow, so are many of today’s architects foreseeing a possible world of intelligent cities and -literally- ‘smart growth’ for the next century. Throughout architectural history, advances in world technology as inspired thinkers to imagine other possible worlds. Inspired by the complexity of growth systems and behavioral patterns of mother nature, rather than man-made machines, the ambition of the discipline is placed beyond the existing creations of man, and after the designs of the Master Creator.
If we are looking at perception, and perception is an understanding of the world…how does the physical body and its placement in reality affect perception? How does the body relate to the perception of architecture? How is architecture defined in relation to the body?
Every outcome depends on initial input…That is to say, one’s perception can only be formed by one’s experience in life. This sounds simple enough. In addition to this, architecture exists with or without the body.
Every experience that someone has throughout an entire lifetime is the sum of what they know. This includes every person they ever spoke to, or every place they ever went (real or fantasy), everything they ever read, topic they researched, discipline they studied, music they heard, food they ate…etc, you get the point. It is impossible for someone to know what they have never been exposed to in one form or another. These experiences are the initial inputs of data that shape and influence one’s life. They are stored, combined and multiplied, imagined and realized in the mind, where perception takes place.
The body is the container, the physical vehicle for the mind. It is equipped with sensory inputs for seeing, touching, hearing, tasting and smelling, continuously gathering data; adding information to the confluence of perception. It also provides mobility to take the mind to arenas of new experience and understanding. The body experiences as it moves through space allowing the mind to engage and interpret the input data. Perception is the deciphering of the data and validation of the combined experiences presented to the body and mind. Architecture then, is the space the body moves within. It is the source of the input data and can be qualified as everything outside the body. Every space the body inhabits…every sound in that space…every sight of that space…
Does this suggest that every room is architecture in relation to the body inside the room? Is every street considered architecture as the body moves within it? Are cars, trees and furniture part of the ideological sense of architecture? Are other people outside your own body considered architecture? Is the screen you are staring at right now architecture?
Or is architecture just buildings and the making of them?
Or is architecture a discipline of thinking and designing space…in relation to the body?
As the discourse and exploration into computation as architectural design continues, more insight is being offered into the potentials of tomorrow’s digitally charged world. New techniques for form generation and fitness criteria in which to test these forms are developing at a remarkable pace. Architects are becoming part biologist and part computer scientist, studying the natural world in order to implement biological growth strategies into digitally simulated environments to achieve a complexity that is unpredictable and beyond the individual will of the designer. Virtual agents are programmed with behavioral information that can be translated into formal patterns, populations, and structural systems. Evolutionary techniques propagate agents through mating and mutation breeding an offspring that contains a mix of its parent agents creating a sort of ‘genetic vitality’ that is then subject to the fitness criteria of the environment being designed. These reproduced generations can take on any number of attributes. Architecturally, they can be volumes of space that represent rooms, they can be panelized shapes that create a surfacing system, they can be structural members that form a mesh… Whatever the interpretation is the will of the designer.
The power of these evolutionary computing tools are undeniably potent, and the result of a well constructed system is visually amazing. Yet the seduction of the presented product may be misleading, the concept of ‘hands-off’ design / bio-mimetic evolutionary processes has a fundamental flaw, and the research of generative morphogenetic design often overlooks the one of the most basic reasons for architecture to exist in the first place.
Thousands of years ago, at the beginning of mankind’s recorded history, architecture was created out of necessity for shelter from the natural world. Throughout the centuries, it has represented many monumental ideals of man’s philosophy; the immortality of the pyramid, the grandeur of the palace, the might of the fortress, the divinity of the cathedral… It has provided solitude for the individual, comfort for the family, kinship for the community, commerce for the city, and headquarters for the nation. Architecture has throughout history served mankind for specific purposes and offered a reading of human culture that invigorates the health of societal networks. Unfortunately, it has also represented man’s conquest over nature rather than our symbiosm with it. And nature continues to prove that it is more powerful, more beautiful, more intelligent, and through increased capability and investigation, we discover its designs are more amazingly complex and fascinating.
What can we learn from nature in order to better understand how to deploy natural systems into architectural design? Evolutionary processes in nature are contained within species and environment. Small genetic alterations are presented through mating and mixing of the gene pool, but this is always done within a species, kind with kind and type with type. Mutations in biological organisms do not enhance the organism or its performance, but rather contaminate it. Sometimes, these mutations can be passed on devitalizing the genealogy through each successive generation. When introduced to a fitness function such as the environment, natural selection demands the survival of the strongest and best equipped for the environment, allowing them to mate and pass on the fittest genes into the next generation gene pool. The mutations die out and do not survive.
Evolution through adaptation is evident within species who adapt to their habitat, strengthening their genetic chances for survival to the next generation. However, no scientific evidence shows evolution between species at a genetic level. In order to be tested by the fitness criteria, a complete phenotypic model must be presented. From the entire organism to the individual systems within the organism, a completed phenotype must be tested. The test cannot occur at any level lower than the completed whole, due to the fact that the complex systems are more than the sum of the individual parts that compose them. The skeletal system, the muscular system, circulatory system, must all be complete in order to test against the fitness criteria and ensure they are strong enough to survive and be passed on. Each organ in the biological body must be complete to perform its function. An organism could not survive without complete lungs to breathe, or with a complete heart to pump…the organism would not live while small mutations to an incomplete lung were being tested to see if it could provide for the respiratory needs of the body. How would it pass on genetic information if it does not survive? A single bone does not perform its function apart from the adjacent bones of the skeletal system, and this compressive structure needs the muscular system to operate it. The muscle needs blood from the circulatory system, which carries oxygen from the respiratory system…and so on. Every complex system at every level within the natural world is more than the sum of its parts and critical to the phenotype’s condition of survival and genetic continuation. Where do the specific phenotypes come from? They must be designed.
How does this inform the architectural trajectory? Design is inevitable. There are always fitness criteria in which to test and measure the performance of every generation, but at every level, it is up to the designer to impose their design judgment upon the work. Just as in the complexity of the natural design is undeniable, so too in the search for generative techniques in architecture. In the sight of architecture’s potential and the proliferation of seducing forms being produced in today’s academic arenas, the architect must not overlook the consideration of its human users. This does not imply that architecture cannot exist without people…it can. Nor does this imply that architecture cannot strive beyond the reach of this planet’s current physical reality, including gravity, solar and atmospheric conditions, and time. What it does imply, that the human race is an existing species, expected to adapt and survive and not expected to evolve into another species. Architecture will continue to be designed by humans and for humans, creating a better tomorrow and ensuring the genetic vitality of our cultures.
The quest to mimic the natural environment through architectural research and development is noble. It is inevitably the path toward a future where man-made architecture becomes more like biological organisms co-existing with nature rather than attempting to control it. Through this partnership the world will be enhanced with a human / nature symbiosis rich with architectural complexity, variation, interest and fascination.