LOS ANGELES, CA, USA
If you trace the trajectories of artificial technology and natural technology throughout history, you may find an exponentially increasing gap in its economic interests. The magnitude of this difference varies by location and culture, but the overall trend is the same. This gap correlates to an increasingly “un-homogenous” architecture, pushing it farther away from a symbiotic relationship with its environment. There is a smattering of instances that fall above the curve which have made the effort to explore natural technology, but the weight of architects operating under the curve pulls the overall discrepancy away from that which may be considered economical on the energetic spectrum. It’s likely not enough for buildings to have zero-energy consumption systems. They should also be designed with embedded formal, material, and systematic intelligence.
Formalism in architecture is a highly disputed issue with typically bipartisan constituents. To some, “form follows function,” while to others form is abstracted material or simply a product of industrial standardization. While each of these statements is valid to some extent, they stem from the time period in which they were conceived. Now, a more relevant statement could be – form is adaptive – form listens to the complex network of scales and dimensions of a building’s design and situates itself accordingly. These scales may be urban (a building in its context), meta (proportion and adjacency within the building), and micro (material detailing and hardware), while various dimensions are cultural, social, political, and formal. If each scale and dimension maintains a certain adaptability with relation to the others, then it could be perceived as having a certain embedded intelligence.
Nature is the primary purveyor of intelligent systems, and these systems are designed to adapt recursively. Here, intelligence is embedded in form, and form is embedded in intelligence. That is the essence of the evolution of species – our formal growth affects our intellectual growth as much as the inverse. If architecture is to strive for energetic neutrality, form must be a part of the equation and it must have an impact on the evolution of the building. We develop the doorknob to work best with our hand’s ability to grasp and twist, while at the same time we alter our methods for grasping and twisting to meet the limits of the standardized doorknob. Thus, the man-made doorknob completes an evolutionary cycle.
The pace of nature is imperceptibly slow, with evolutionary formal cycles taking eons. Computational power, on the other hand, is on the rise and recursive tasks can be handled at lightning-quick speed. These means that disparate parts can be drawn closer together and, given the addition of a proper set of algorithms, be checked by one another to analyze each component’s impact on the whole and adapt accordingly in a virtually endless loop. This can produce a more holistic system – the result of a conversation between parts as opposed to the prominence of a few selected attributes.
Fundamentally in line with a building’s formal intelligence is its material intelligence. Whether natural or artificial, materials have very specific (and yet interpretable) sets of qualities that lend them to excel at certain tasks. Combine these with the aforementioned formal qualities and you’ve got a very performative set of components. Individual parts are incredibly adept at performing a single task, yet in architecture there are many tasks a single component may need to perform. Imagine a building whose material components maximize their full potential – wood’s impressive flexibility and in-line tensile strength, steel’s heat expansion and ultra-thin profile, and on and on. Through complexity in the design of material integration, buildings could actually be simplified and homogenized with fewer separate components and connections.
For instance, take the primitive architecture of some of our first homo-sapien ancestors. They are stone and wood works which seamlessly blend into their environment – so much so that it’s arguable that they may even be considered performative structures by any of today’s measures. These works are at the same time formally simple and fundamentally complex. Their builders had to navigate structural and enclosure issues at multiple scales, giving into the molecular surface qualities of the material while still manipulating it just enough to perform a new task (for example, vaulting or joining). Conversely, architecture today is largely an energy-intensive amalgamation of single-task parts: stone for compressive strength, mortar for bonding, steel for tensile strength and tie-backs, wood for warmth and windscreen, plastic waterproofing, foamed plastic for insulation – it all comes together to make the vertical surface we know simply as “wall.”
What may prove more useful here is looking to the materials themselves for multitudes of qualities yet unharnessed in our single-use design world: alternative qualities of metals, silicones, concretes, and woods that we have yet to explore due to our own emphasis on standardization and lack of access to data. We can enhance the structural qualities of composites, rethink the form-making methods for concrete, or disrupt the flatness of steel panels to begin to consider how the material can cross functional boundaries. The more a material can perform according to its strengths, the more efficiency it can contribute to the overall system.
Curiously, it doesn’t seem like material science and engineering has been explored with much depth in the architectural field. We tend to just take materials as they are, in their prefabricated fashion, yet there are so many untapped properties inherent to standard building materials:
- Fluid Dynamics – parameters such as viscosity and complex flow analysis grant materials incredibly useful behavioral properties. Gravity and environmental factors affect material deposition and can be mastered in the production of complex form.
- State Change – rapid liquefaction and solidification through discreet temperature control is what gives 3D-printing its accuracy and resolution, but other materials may have unique properties when approached in a similar way, and they may be more flexible in deposition techniques.
- Granule Behavior – particle aggregation is surprisingly consistent if the particles themselves are somewhat consistent. Simple concepts such as angle of repose in soils and sands can be explored to achieve incredibly diverse results in material deposition.
All materials have built-in parameters such as these. When harnessed as part of a recursive network with form, culture, psychological, and other dimensions, these parameters can present themselves as further embedded intelligence.
For the past hundred or so years writers and storytellers have mastered the art of projection, using descriptive linguistics and vivid imagery to draw parallels between familiar concepts in our time to present a familiar yet alien vision of what is to come – a kind of a hazy lens that leaves just enough obscured that our minds can fill the void with imaginative personal content. However, as a result of the visualization of these stories in media, what has emerged is a shared futuristic aesthetic. The boundary between this and real, productive, future-minded design is often unclear. While these formal nuances do present new hurdles for current construction methods and push tools to new performative tasks, they often don’t consider the building as a whole system. In short, there’s a significant lack of a design feedback loops between the building’s scales and dimensions.
Most of today’s buildings are designed via similar linear progression that starts with an overall design vision and ends with details meant to address issues caused by top-down sequencing. The building systems are often incorporated in post-production, left to twist and shift around designed conditions in parasitic fashion. These critical elements are crafted to meet the demands of the macro-design instead of creating a network of development in which the design at various scales can influence the building as a whole system. The unfortunate result of linear design thinking is often another typically heterogeneous building wrapped up to look like an incorporated whole.
Architecture, like many other design fields, is a product of its context. Since the industrial revolution, the “kit of parts” technique proliferated the discipline. Material economy stemmed from the fiscal economy where it was most convenient to create a swatch of standardized parts, simultaneously providing affordable design to all and restricting any designer who wasn’t able to tap into the industrial market to standardize their own designs. Only now, with the parameterization of design tools and the mass-customization of components are we able to pull away from the abstraction of standardization without economical risk.
Parameterization, like many technologies, is a double-edged sword. On one hand, recursive production and rapid, accurate prototyping become increasingly accessible. On the other, it can make design easier, faster, and cheaper without any measure of real analysis. When new technology is used only to produce things faster and with a higher profit margin, the projects and the overall discipline suffer. It is critical, therefore, to understand the depth of the software and hardware which are the tools of the architect. Using parametric modeling software just to produce quickly is like typing with just your index finger – it works, but the tools aren’t operating together as intended.
Software and computation are incredibly powerful resources. In the world of systematic design, they are the container which holds all of the scales and dimensions of a building and allows them to inform each other over time. This is where knowledge of the depth of the tools comes into play. The more you know a tool, the more you can let it work for you to produce a cohesive and intelligent project.
The Natural Abstract
As things stand, architecture is still incredibly abstract and its parts still very disparate. Building form is an abstraction of its use, while building components are abstractions of their material makeup. It’s like a overstuffed suitcase – everything is forced into place and the whole thing is awkwardly strapped together through sheer force (of steel and of will). These discrepancies between what something is and what something wants to be contribute to the overall parasitic nature of architecture on the planet – enough abstraction and a building no longer contributes to its environment at all.
Today we have tools we could have never imagined: massive computing, massive data, and a virtually uninhibited communication network all within the last 30 years. Through in-depth analysis, recursive generative design methodologies, and open-source asset sharing we can dramatically affect our runaway built environment. If we are willing to slow down, listen to nature, and learn the tools, we can guide buildings back toward a holistic equilibrium.