Cybernetic Serendipity

Found this great intro to the history of computer aided design (CAD) as well as the linked YouTube video embedded below.  It’s remarkable how much was developed in 1963 that is still in use today, and while the paradigms developed then have been advanced a great deal, it’s kind of disappointing that the field hasn’t developed further in the past half century when it comes to the role of the computer in design.  It seems like there is still a great deal of room for advances in human computer interaction (HCI) and digital design, and this may form the core of my research moving forward.  One group to watch is Leap Motion and the advances they and developers are making in concert with projection mapping and VR tools like Oculus Rift.

Architecture is Fiction

Architecture always proposes a different reality.

Architecture often proposes built work, sometimes in extreme detail, sometimes with little other than a scribble. Whether or not the proposed built work is realized is a separate concern that involves other disciplines, often including business, legal, and knowledge expert professionals. But that concern is the management and execution of design, it is not itself architecture.

Architecture can propose different realities across a wide spectrum of interests, suggesting changes in areas including, but not limited to, the built environment, urban development, landscape, policy, and social justice. These concerns are important to architecture, but are not the essence of it.

Architecture is fiction, telling the truth through a lie.

Architecture may not always paint a rosy picture. It may be outright dystopian or contrarian, questioning tradition, social mores, political structures, design decisions and popular culture. These proposed realities are essential to the stimulation of ideas, thought and discussion, prompting the evaluation of norms and exposing injustices.

Architecture may also present a rosier picture than is reasonable, but like the dystopian, it stimulates ideas. Utopian architecture suggests a reality unconstrained by what is reasonable so that current realities can be reconsidered. It presents what is disruptive in order to influence incremental development.

Architecture must propose realities that stimulate. Architecture that does not challenge what is normally accepted contributes to the stagnation of society and the absence of diversity.

Architecture is distorted by interpretation.

When an attempt is made to translate architecture to reality, there is an unavoidable process of interpretation involved. Even if the architect herself is constructing the built work, she is interpreting the original proposal and quite possibly making changes, albeit with more insight into the original idea than if someone else were doing the building.

When, more commonly, many other parties are involved–including general contractors, subcontractors, craftsmen, manufacturers, fabricators–there are multiple layers of interpretation taking place. Thankfully the architect retains some influence during construction administration, but there is always a degree to which the result is out of her hands.

The animation above depicts two interpretations of a proposed reality or possibly a proposed reality (fluid) and an interpretation or realization (cubic). A proposal that is less specific might result in two vastly different interpretations. A proposal that is more specific might still result in a translation that does not honor the original intent. A proposal might suggest something unconstrained by reality, an interpretation might incorporate the proposal’s ideas but allow itself to be constrained by current technology or standards.

There is in reality an architecture whose best form is the result of a negotiation of constraints. Constraints are unavoidable in design that is to be implemented, and constraints are an important ingredient for creativity. Perhaps the mark of a true author architect is the ability to navigate the myriad constraints imposed by client, site, law and physics and operate within them to produce work that touches on the unconstrained, even on the metaphysical, to which the original text referred.

Humans of [Name Your City]

“We’re all victims of the architect. Architecture is the only art that you can’t help but feel. You can avoid paintings, you can avoid music, and you can even avoid history. But good luck getting away from architecture.”

Phillipe Devario and companion

Phillipe Devario and companion, as featured on Humans of New York

Last night my brother pointed me to the Facebook page for Humans of New York, a popular photo-blog by Brandon Stanton who has set about to document the people he encounters on the streets of NYC.  In particular, my brother indicated the above photo and quote, which turn out (thanks to the recognition of Facebook users) to be of/by Philippe Devario, an expert on Italian art and history.

Devario’s comment is a reminder of the significance of the built environment and its impact on our daily lives.  Architecture, big “A” or not, is ubiquitous and essential.  To many, it may seem to be a force of its own, out of the hands of the average person.  Considering that architecture often seems to be out of the hands of architects in today’s economic and legislative environment, the average person is in dire straits indeed.

Even so, the idea that architecture is an art you can’t help but feel is a compelling one–it calls us to consider our work at a visceral level that can certainly be lost in the midst of design development and detailing.  It is an unusual case, especially one involving an architect, in which a building will not be occupied to some degree by someone.  How do we make sure we do not lose sight of the human experience element of our designs?

As the editors of the current issue of Architectural Design (AD) note, this issue is of special concern in the context of computational design.  Algorithmic design approaches have typically focused on form generation or on the optimization of various performance factors; however, there is now renewed interest in addressing the need for human-centric architecture.

Christian Derix, architectural computation researcher/practitioner and guest editor, describes how in contrast to the urban and building planning professions, design computation in architecture has been less focused on spatial design as much as it has been on parametric optimization and on efficiencies that support construction.  While I would disagree with his assessment of parametric design resulting only in “decorative additions wrapping conventional spatial organisation” (Derix 2014), he does make a valid point about the lack of spatial complexity in the work being produced by academia as demonstration of computational design approaches.

Given that my thesis is taking shape around abstract concepts such as morphogenesis and emergence, it is interesting to consider how to stay connected to the human experience.  It is appropriate in academia to eliminate important factors in design in order to explore a specific subset in great depth.  Even so, if I cannot frame my explorations in such a way as to relate to our experience and to the humans of my city, I have perhaps impoverished my findings.


Derix, C. (2014). The space of people in computation. Architectural Design, 84(5), 14-23.

Challenge vs. Comfort

In light of Frank Gehry’s much talked about interchange with a reporter in Spain this last week, Rem Koolhaas’ perspective on Challenge vs. Comfort seems like a relevant discussion.  To some, Gehry’s work might qualify as challenging since it is certainly not the norm and because it challenges us to re-evaluate the architecture to which we have become accustomed.  It challenges the idea of form following function and asks whether architecture can be sculpture. But has Gehry fallen prey to what is comfortable for himself?  Where is his recent defensiveness coming from?

Frank Gehry flicks off reporters in Spain

Frank Gehry flicks off reporters in Spain

Koolhaas, in his talk on Challenge vs. Comfort, posits that we have lost a sense of adventure, mystery and daring in art and architecture.  Instead we have conformed what is popular, what is easiest and most predicable.  When presenting this talk in Milan, he presented a number of his projects that highlight unpredictable and more challenging moves, such as the unmarked Prada store in Beverly Hills (since altered).  It creates mystery and interest by challenging expectations for retail establishments, particularly those on Rodeo Drive.

I recently traveled to Boston during our “field trip week”, where I toured the campuses of Harvard and MIT and encountered Gehry’s Stata Center.  It is unquestionably Gehry.  It could have been situated anywhere.  Maybe I didn’t give it much of a chance, but it certainly didn’t awe me as Charles Correa’s building across the street did.  It felt hulking and awkward, like a relative with uncomfortably poor hygiene that has forced its way into a more refined gathering.  It drew attention only because of its flamboyance, as if insecure across from the repose and elegance of the Correa piece.

Gehry's Stata Center at MIT

Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT

While I am pleasantly surprised by aspects of Gehry’s latest work in France (criticism of which prompted his outburst), I can’t help but feel that he has made his point.  His Guggenheim in Bilbao was a huge success–I would love to visit it someday (okay, the fact that it’s in Spain is a part of that)–as was the Disney Concert Hall.  But now that he has developed a style such that his buildings are unmistakably his, is he really challenging anything?  Is he challenging himself?

In the documentary Sketches of Gehry, Gehry is questioned about his response to criticism of his work.  How does he take it?  He says that he pays no attention.  He moves on.  I give him props for believing in what he is doing, but in my mind you have to do better than that.  His reaction in Spain only reinforces this–if you have something to contribute to the conversation, at least articulate it to us rather than deriding everyone else.  If 98 percent of architecture is “pure shit”, why call it architecture in the first place?


Various Trains of Thought on Architecture

In Theory class today, our discussion regarding Rem Koolhaas’ view of our generation’s preference for comfort over challenge was interesting and I need to let it percolate.  I will post more this coming weekend when I can breathe after midterm reviews; in the meantime, here are some thoughts that have been brewing in my mind over the past couple weeks…

  • Architecture is a confluence–of disciplines, concerns, individuals, skillsets, cultures, materials, methods, industries … Creates opportunities for collaboration and development of new knowledge, new fields, new materials, etc.
    • Materials embody this confluence–in their aggregation, makeup, development, history (both inherently in their molecular structure and in their use across time by varied cultures), associated trades
    • How does one critique such a confluence?  Confluence is a description that could encompass the most basic, horribly designed buildings.  How do we make value judgments about the use of materials?
  • Architecture is a conceptual framework within which an architect proposes a response, typically in the form of built work, to forces at work in a given environment–convergent and divergent, internal and external, abstract and physical–applying her experience and personal approach (i.e. together being craft) to the development of her response.  The architect is herself a force, applying her will to constituent forces and bringing equilibrium.
    • This view of architecture provides a framework within which to evaluate individual works–is the architect (consciously) responding to all the forces that are at play in the environment?  Does the architect allow certain forces to dominate at the expense of others?  If so, is that intentional?
    • But this view is still not a value judgment or a statement of belief as to what the role of architecture and the architect should be.  So I still need to develop my own thoughts regarding value and the basis for that thinking.
    • If for this class [Theory] I am looking for a project through which to express my understanding of architecture in terms of an architect’s response to forces, it would need to exemplify the different types of forces to which an architect might typically have to respond.  In addition it would need to embody my values–the force of my own will–as to what the response to the project and its environment should be.

I confess I am reluctant to take a particular stance regarding what architecture should be.  I have for so long been in sponge-mode, just trying to absorb all the knowledge and ways of thinking and designing with which I am being deluged.  But I have to accept that this is one of those things that I’m not going to “get right”; rather, my position will evolve over time, and it won’t be robust unless I put it out there, provide my reasoning and support, and allow it to be critiqued.  Then I can revise it and make it clearer and stronger–to myself and to others.  This is why I am pursuing design–because I won’t feel like I’m reaching my fullest potential unless I am really putting myself out there.  And I have to start somewhere.


Document, document, document: A Lego robot in process

Today I am inspired this guy who developed a robotic Lego AT-AT walker and made it onto the MAKE magazine blog for it.  He did a really great job of documenting his process and it’s a reminder that I need to do the same.

As part of my current robotics-related independent study I am developing a Lego six-axis robot–it’s pretty involved!  The idea is to build one that will be roughly proportional to the one pictured below, which is almost done being installed at Ball State’s Architecture Building:

KUKA Robot at Ball State

The most complicated part is the wrist at the end of its arm, which incorporates three distinct axes in a very small space.  Transferring axial rotation across other axes takes some mechanical engineering, for which I’m not really trained.  Thankfully others who are have shared their work, and I am learning a lot from a couple official Lego sets I own.  There are probably many ways to go about this particular problem, but I came to the conclusion that I would need a custom gear–which is also a good excuse to try out our new Formlabs 3D printer.  Here’s what I came up with:

Modified Lego Gears

These are based on a standard Lego 20-tooth beveled gear that looks much like the one on the right, except that the Lego one has a cross-shaped opening at the center instead of the circular one pictured above.  The circular opening permits the gear to rotate freely around an axle rather than only in concert with the rotation of the axle.  The compound gear on the left is two 20-tooth gears joined at an offset that allows the gear to straddle the opening at the center of a turntable.  This arrangement is pictured below (left), with the custom gear approximated with the standard Lego gears.  The custom gears are being printed on a Formlabs Form 1+ resin-based 3D printer (below right), which so far is producing some pretty amazing results.

WP_20140912_002    Formlabs Form 1+ 3D Printer

I’m still working on getting into the habit of taking pictures at every stage, so unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the first go at printing the custom gear.  I will update this post as soon as I do.  In the meantime, take my word for it that the printed gear is at the core of the following first pass at a functioning three-axis wrist!

Lego robot wrist


UPDATE: Here are the results of the most recent print.  This is a revision of an earlier iteration in which the gear teeth did not taper to facilitate better meshing with other gears.  As mentioned above, the circular opening at the center allows an axle to rotate freely within in it; the opposite is true also–the gear can rotate freely around an axle.

WP_20140914_011   WP_20140914_015

Architecture and Self-Expression

Aaron Betsky’s article in The Berlage Institute’s Hunch magazine entitled “Critical Architecture: The Question of the Art in Building” (unfortunately not published online) presents an insightful picture of the architect’s dilemma, but one that makes certain assumptions that may not be valid.  He says, “As free agents, architects are put in a difficult position. They have to find a way to define what they do as more than just making something that disappears into [the client’s demands for functional, efficient and self-image-projecting buildings].”  Architects have turned to art and language as means for self-expression resulting in the concepts of utopian and unbuilt architecture and in site-specific or installation works, a medium they have shared with the artist who aspires to built work.  According to Betsky, however, these forms of self-expression lack the functional impact that full scale built works can have on the world.

Betsky’s first assumption in this analysis is that the architect has to work in a traditional architect-client (and perhaps -engineer/-contractor) relationship.  Today there are a number of models that allow an architect to work for himself or in an emerging rearrangement of practitioners that brings the architect closer to being contractor and/or manufacturer.  For example, as Jonathan Segal advocates, if the architect can begin to operate as developer in addition to his primary occupation as designer, he has the ability to express himself and get work built–and he has demonstrated this successfully, obtaining financing from banks and investors and producing creatively designed and engineered buildings that redefine norms within the building industry (see  Another example is the composites industry in which architects are often directly involved with the design and composition of materials for built work.

Another assumption that Betsky’s article appears to make is that site-specific and installation work is either not architecture (being the architect’s attempt at being an artist) or not of as much value or impact as a full scale work that fits a traditional definition of a building as “something built that we can inhabit and use”.  But the site-specific “artwork” that Betsky says is now prevalent in architecture is often far more front-and-center in culture and society than buildings that fit standard categories for built work, and with the architect’s sphere of influence, which Betsky says is greater than that of the artist, such works have the potential to impact as many people as any other structure.

What does a building that makes for a better world look like?  This is perhaps at the heart of the discussion for Betsky.  Is it a specific functional category of building such as a habitation or hospital?  Is it a high quality structure, one designed according to sound architectural design principles and a sensitivity to the environment and long-term sustainability?  Or, as Betsky suggests, is it one that makes a statement?  If it is the latter, a highly expressive pavilion might have greater potential than a multi-family housing development.

On the other hand, self-expression can take many forms, and it is conceivable that an architect could thoroughly express herself fully in the service her firm provides to her clients.  There is a certain creativity that is required (and which can be a self-imposed requirement) as part of design when it comes to addressing environmental concerns and building efficiency within a tight budget.  There are certainly those who would say better design should cost less.  If this were our focus, we would not harm society and we would have to opportunity to impact it on many levels including elevating design within the common sphere, perhaps through such means even making a statement through a multi-family dwelling.

In architecture…

In architecture considered as a material practice, materialization as a concept is transformed from its traditional meaning as the translation of an a priori design representation to its material condition; it is now transformed to become one of the sources of the inception of designs. The rediscovery that we can design in material has been a source of the reformulation of a digital praxis in the last decade. What traditionally was the material terminus of the design process has become a new beginning.

–Rivka and Robert Oxman in Theories of the Digital in Architecture