Complex Discourse the adoption of scientific semiotics into the architectural language
Li sa Cumming AADRL: Design as Research II submission One April 2011.
Ab str ac t The architectural discourse, as any is subject to evolution and has over the last decade seen a significant shift in terminology. An obsession, like many other disciplines, with contemporary scientific research, architecture has adopted biogenetic terminology to articulate proposed architectural conditions and relationships. However, this adoption has undergone little translation and is applied in various manners in various discourses, rendering the architectural meaning or relevance vague, non-specific or codified. This paper argues that the relevance of such terminologies lies in their ability to specify, contextualise and critically discuss the work they are sign for.
Co nt ent s Ab str ac t
Introd uc tio n
Evaluating Architectural Complexity
Im age s Li st
Re fer en c es
Co mp le x Di scou rse : t he adopt ion o f sci ent ific se mio ti cs i nto t he a rc hit ec tur al lan gu age Introd uc tio n Fundamental to an architectural discourse is the language used to discuss it. Though architecture is a discipline that primarily communicates via drawing and model, language has been instrumental in its ability to contextualise, specify and critically discuss both motive and implication of a proposal. Contemporarily, evolution of the manner in which architects are designing emergent systems, responsive to their environmental conditions has seen the adoption of scientific semiotics, in particular ‘complexity’, representative of adaptive behaviours and ecological constituents that are desired by such proposals. This adoption however, has undergone little translation, resulting in the use of pure scientific terminology coded with its own signification, to articulate and discuss purely architectural conditions that operate at an entirely different scale, performative function and materiality. While semiotics do not define architecture itself and have arguably little ramification for a design system itself, they form a construct that enables reflective and projective discourse, affirming architecture as a continually evolving and self-critical entity. Thus, as the topic of discussion evolves and translates according to its social contextualisation, so must the language that is used to articulate it. In taking such action to define the architectural notion of complexity thus provides a currently absent framework with which to objectively evaluate the translation and effectiveness of complexity as a generative design strategy. Complexity, as understood within its scientific context can be extrapolated as a condition of three criteria: multiplicity, local rules and global behaviour. It is these critera that have become key systematic logic systems in pursuing complexity in design are illustrated by the experimental works of Neri Oxman, Biothing and Karl Chu, respectively. Their research will here be critically explored in terms of objectives, process and experimental results (materialised or not) in order to extrapolate the methods and ramifications of architectural adoption of multiplicity and, agent and global behaviour.
This paper examines the topical scientific semiotic, ‘complexity’ by way of case study. Defining complexity within its scientific construct and extrapolating the key objectives that have been architecturally endorsed, will elicit where definition and specificity in the adoption of the term is lacking and how responsibility for the making clear of such critical lapses might be delegated, recognising that refinement of the architectural language is not limited to theoreticians but practitioners, researchers and historians alike.
Co mp le xi ty Complex behaviour, within complexity science is a system constituted of multiple agents, unaware of their greater environment that dynamically interact according to local rules, producing global behaviours that are unpredictable or indeterminable from the interactions between these individual constituent elements.1 These interactions allow for a sort of evolutionary adaptation and immediate responsiveness to the system’s environment. Such integrated action is attractive to the architectural discipline seeking to divorce from the static, heavy nature of the contemporary built environment so as to foster a more fluid, informationrich and responsive environment, more conducive to the technology enabled lifestyles we lead. Architects have studied naturally occurring complex systems for inspiration as to how such rule-based systems might be applied and what their design limitations might be. Problematically however, while their properties are incredibly attractive to the design of emergent architectural systems, the ability to demonstrate examples of complex behaviour is much stronger than in fact our capacity to explain it2. “Architecture has frequently drawn inspiration from nature- from its forms and structures, and, most recently, from the inner logic of its morphological processes. It is therefore necessary to be clear as to where architecture is literally considered as part of nature, where there are analogies or metaphors, and where nature is a source of inspiration.” 3 If complexity theory is to be employed within architecture as a systematic approach to generating bottom-up design constructs that operate beyond the notion of a metaphor and engages with a materialised, environment-specific adaptation, a certain degree of clarity in objective needs to be elicited, attested by clear selection of semiology. If the language used to discuss the exemplified complexity cannot further decode its nature, then the discourse is at a loss for the productive development of an architecturally specific semiotic construct- necessary to enable specific, critical discussion rather than all-encompassing concepts.
Johnson, Steven. Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. Scribner, 2001. p19
Kwinter, Sanford. Far From Equilibrium; Essays on Technology and Design Culture. Davidson, Cynthia (ed.). Barcelona: Actar,
Frazer, John. ‘A Natural Model for Architecture’ and ‘New Tools’ in An Evolutionary Architecture. London: Architectural
Association, 1995. p10.
Evo lvin g D e fin itio n s “The community, as much as the individual, is bound to its language. A language cannot therefore be treated simply as a form of contract […].”4 The term complexity means one thing within the scientific realm and must mean something different, or at the very least transposed into the architectural realm due to the differentiation between the disciplines. Complexity as a sign5 is composed of a signal (sound pattern) and signification (the concept). When many significations are assigned to a single sign, the semiotic construct becomes redundant in its objective function to articulate instead, becoming burdened with subjectivity. Linguistics is an adaptive system that must and does respond to its social context, it cannot ignore its previous construct or semiology, as this has shaped its contemporary adaptation and signification, carrying with it embedded meaning. So for a semiotic once rooted in scientific discourse to now carry architectural signification means that an explicit translation or adaptation must occur within the social construct so only necessary past meaning is carried over into the new signification. Contemporary, Patrik Schumacher is committed to defining parameters of the architectural discourse as universal construct from which global motives and ramifications can be both extrapolated and conjectured. “The theory of architectural autopoiesis argues that it is not only possible to describe architecture as a cohesive entity from the outside, but that architecture is as a system of communications has itself maintained and strengthened its cohesiveness by means of architectural theory, and can be expected to do so in the future.”6
His document, The Autopoiesis of Architecture implies that architecture is a self-correcting, realigning organism that continually updates itself, employing communication systems as its means of cohesiveness. However, if this is to be managed through theoretical discourse, the autopoietic constituents that allow enable this are practitioners, theorists and historians, actively engaged with such a discourse. While this document makes attempt to propose a universal communication order based upon reflections of the recent parametric phase of architectural
Saussure, Ferdinand de., Course in General Linguistics. Open Court Publishing, 1986. p71.
Schumacher, Patrik. The Autopoiesis of Architecture: A New Framework for Architecture. Vol. 1. Wiltshire: Wiley, 2011. p29.
experimentation, it could be argued that, in his attempt for disambiguation, Schumacher excludes from this treatise any shades of grey. Such a move disables open cogitation by offering a framework that is deterministic and prescribed in nature thus, counterproductive to tangential and explorative discussion. It is these notions of linguistic indeterminacy that are paramount during terminological infancy in order to maintain experimentation and discursive proposals that come about as a response to possible signification.
Arc hi te ct ura l Com ple xity Mu ltip lic ity Oxman has a self-confessed infatuation with form finding. Nature as precedent, she begins her experimentation from a sense of material ecology. Describing herself as a designer of processes not form, to foster a fabricated integration as opposed to the modernist practice of differentiated distribution that assigned material to function. “Nature authors not forms but processes to think about form. Recipes that mix material and environment together and it is due to those mixtures and those relationship that form arises.”7 From the point of view that nature knows how to organise matter8, Oxman sees the designer as an editor of constraints, enabled by a computational process. Her work advocates propagation of same-type agents, or ‘material molecules’ in a singular material that changes its properties according to local conditions such as, pressure point here, structural support there, thus generating a complex yet integrated piece of design. And while such objectives are seemingly understood when presented to an audience, her work is still publicly elusively described as “a complex recipe of design, science, art, and environmentalism, and it’s often hard to tell where one field ends and the other picks up.”9 Therefore, in looking to her work we see if we can extrapolate some of the complex qualities of multiplicity she is communicating, such as adaptation. Yet adaptation, when reviewed in her Chaise Lounge, Beast, for example exhibits a one-off moment of response, and does not deal with material flux or continual adaptation that her descriptions of living materiality implore. Rather, it is development of a higher resolution of material application. What might be better terminology then is material integration, giving better insight into what her environment is, which in most cases is the human body thus indicative of scale also and clarify what her multiplicity of agents are and the nature of their adaptive properties. They are in fact static agents by scientific standards yet are described as producing “living-synthetics constructions” 10 which seems counter descriptive to their fabricated state and more a descriptive notions of complex amalgamations of interdisciplinary fascinations.
Poptech. Neri Oxman: On Designing Form. Web. 12 Mar. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txl4QR0GDnU>
Ortved, John. Neri Oxman. Web. 25 Mar. 2011. <http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/neri-oxman/>
Figure 1 Beast chaise lounge
Figure 2 Materialised cell formation
Within the architectural discipline, Oxmanâ€™s work is perceivably situated as an event of complexity- where it determines an architectural event at the scale of the agent, manifesting at the level of fabrication. Such scale of architectural event establishes agent specific or, in the case of Beast, cell specific parameters of thickness, density, cell size and colour.
It is a
propagated event occurring over a large population of cells to produce an integrated output, in this case, the chaise lounge.
Loc al R ule s Similarly to Oxman, Biothing applies agent based logic approach to design, assigning these agents specific tasks in order to become environmentally responsive according to the parameters of their speed, mass and responsive capacity. 11 With a focus on the simple relationships developed between the agents developed in the programming of their alignment, cohesion and separation properties, they form subsequent rules of behaviour and an enriched process of local information sharing. It is propositioned that from simple but enriched relationships, a novel global complexity is attainable. "[…] these data interconnect contextual parameters or parameters specific to construction to allow for the increasing complexity and adaptability of constructed environments and consequently they can change the quality and nature of designs."12 Unlike Oxman, Biothing is disinterested in the agents themselves and more concerned with the relationships between the components and consequent processes that develop the global complexity of the design system, procuring an environmentally responsive agent system that is programmable in its behaviour and indeterminate in its materialisation. Biothing’s ability to address how complexity is generated in a project is intelligible and clear, based upon the bio-natural influences prevalent in contemporary emergent discourse: “[…] in which the individual agents work in concert with their “host” environments and in collaboration with other simple agents towards greater complexity […] according to selfregulating patterns that are found in natural systems.”13
Migayrou, Frédéric. in Andrasek, Alisa. Biothing. HYX Editions, 2009. p23.
Andrasek, Alisa. Biothing. HYX Editions, 2009. p127.
Migayrou, Frédéric. in Andrasek, Alisa. Biothing. HYX Editions, 2009. p24-25.
Figure 3 Agentware: agent system responses according to varying parameters Figure 4 Agentware: a 3d print of a prototypical condition
However, the scale at what this complex agency is operating is under-detailed and evasive of addressing how the agent system might materialise, eluding to the notion that Biothingâ€™s focus is directed toward how computational
constructing agent behaviours rather than on their architectural contextualization. Such a conjecture is arguably substantiated when reviewing the representation of projects such as Agentware 2009, articulated by renderings of the computational processes and threedimensional prints of the resultant forms, a captured moment of the running algorithm. Similarly to Oxmanâ€™s work, Biothingâ€™s projects situate as an event-based complexity. Operating at a systemic level, the event is instigated by the programming of the agent system, manifesting as a behavioural response to a given environment. Notably, the complexity lies in the programmable response of the system to its context but what remains to be constructively discussed is how such complexity can be objectively evaluated. Such a discussion is by no means limited to the work of Biothing rather, a conversation that is necessary across the emergent design discourse.
Glob al B eh avio ur The evaluation of complexity is also a notion that perplexes genetic architecture pioneer, Karl Chu14. The practice of defining architectural concepts seems to be synonymous with Chuâ€™s work, exemplified by one of his recent presentations in Brooklyn, New York where the majority of his twenty-minute presentation attempted to elicit what architecture is, reasoning that architecture has always been perceived in line with the way that the universe is perceived, be that from a theological view point or more contemporarily, biotechnological. Chu contests that the perception of architecture is built upon John Wheelerâ€™s proposed construct of the world as being made up of BITs, small units of information and accordingly, genetic architecture is evolved by the relationship between units of information that provide foundation for the bodyplan, structure and organs, much like the homeogene in biology. Complexity as a rich live-feed of such homeogenetic information is what forms the global brain15 and consequently fashions the architecture of information:
Chu, Karl. Facebook: Karl Chu. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.
GSAPP. Institute for Genetic Architecture. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.
“At the end of the day, I’m talking about architecture as a […] computing system.” 16 Such a system thrives off the accumulation and processing of homeogenetic data. Yet this very data cannot be extrapolated from his work. Where Oxman and Biothing develop an event based, environment specific agent system, Chu employs a deliberate lack of contextualisation. Perceivably, that which is of greater importance to Chu is that such homeogenetic data- or agents of information- exist and the explication of global conditions that are produced from their interactions. Unsurprisingly then, what Chu aims to enable is a discussion of global theorem: notions of worlds of complexity that operate at a level of virtuality rather than materialised events of complexity and consequently, (similarly to Schumacher) how such notions might redefine the discipline and its parameters.
Figure 5 Phylox Figure 6 x_phylum
Symptomatically, the poster children for his work, such as X-Phylum and Phylox become just that- graphic indexes that no more delineate these global concepts than they decode his written work. Similarly, his texts sit parallel to his computational work, neither referencing the other. Subsequently, his work is neither contextualised nor contextualises, permanently situating it within a discourse of virtuality that is, perceivably, exactly where Chu contests the influence of complexity is currently able to extend. Analogous to the work of Schumacher then, what Chu is proposing is a global theorem. While addressing the nature of global conditions arising from the employment of genetically inspired design systems the greater agenda is to determine and publicly discuss the encompassing parameters and constituents of complexity design. Once such guidelines are elucidated for the world of complexity within architecture, a framework for the discussion of the events of complexity is in place, better enabling an evaluation of their relevance and ramifications.
TEDxBrooklyn. TEDxBrooklyn- Karl Chu. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5uDWFSeypM&NR=1>
Ev alu at ing A rc hit ec tu ral Co mp le xi ty The provision of a semiological defining framework that outlines the parameters, constituent of complexity not only postulates a platform to discuss complexity as a condition but also enables differentiation between complexity as a set of objectives, processes and outcomes. Such differentiation provides basis for a comparative evaluation such as performative efficiency, material distribution, local behaviours etc that is otherwise not possible should complexity continue to be discussed in metaphorical or undefined terms. Two possible methods of definition present themselves: that complexity is rendered a subjective field of design that should be dealt with on a case by case method, tasking the designer with the responsibility of defining the ‘complexity’ within their project, abdicating an attempt to corporately define complexity. Alternatively, aligned with Schumacher’s suggestion that architecture has maintained itself as a universal construct of communication and signification in the past and will continue to do so in the future, it could be assumed that with critical debate and a evaluation of complex systems would present a universal definition of the condition. This paper in fact proposes that both these approaches are taken. As earlier discussed, the fact that obscurity exists and is voiced by accomplished advocates in the practice is indicative of a degree of infancy of the complexity condition. For such reasoning that predetermination is is both damaging and limiting to the discourse, excluding what may seem tangential trajectories that in fact enable further clarification. Secondly, time is required to allow such perceptions of design strategies and their contextualisation in order to establish how they withstand the scrutiny of a global audience and successors. Whether it be a process of elimination or affirmation of what does and does not define complexity is subordinate to the necessary articulation of a designer’s clear objectives and processes in pursuit of complexity. The signification is then representative of a universal scope of complexity, discussed in terms of objectives, processes and materialised outputs. Such definition then better allows for the evaluation of complexity within a defined and understood scope of discourse, mediating between universal notions of complexity theory and specific exposition of particular instances.
Co nc lu sio n This paper has conjectured that language is a critical construct used to contextualise an architectural trajectory. Noting a recent shift in architectural influence that is biogenetically situated complexity, it is proposed that the architectural language must evolve in accordance with that shift in order to assimilate the scientific semiotic more specifically and constructively into the architectural discourse. Such complex systems are derived from the interaction of a multiplicity of agents, programmed with simple and locally responsive rules that present global behaviours. In evaluating such conditions within the works of Oxman, Biothing and Chu, three architectural conditions were ascertained that present systems that situate as either event ascribed complexity or worlds of complexity. In formally defining a linguistic construct for architectural complexity that is reflective of the hierarchy and systems that constitute this area of genetic design, a more constructive platform for the evaluation of such systems is enabled. The recommended approach for determining such a linguistic construct employs two methods; first a universal approach that is illustrated by Schumacherâ€™s efforts to define the architectural entity, consequently providing an articulated global focus. Secondly and most importantly, a nondeterministic approach that allows for discrepancy and contestation while such a discourse remains in its architectural infancy that presents a scope or degrees of complexity, represented by the notion of event based complexity. Finally, such definition is a task not to be singularly delegated rather, is the responsibility of theoretician, practitioner and historian alike in order to determine a holistic and objective scope of signification.
Im age s Li st 1. Oxman, Neri. Beast. Web. 31 Mar. 2011. <http://web.media.mit.edu/~neri/site/projects/beast/beast.html> 2. Oxman, Neri. Beast. Web. 31 Mar. 2011. <http://web.media.mit.edu/~neri/site/projects/beast/beast.html> 3. ‘Agentware’ Biothing. Biothing. Web. 31.Mar.2011. <http://www.biothing.org/?cat=6> 4. ‘Agentware’ Biothing. Biothing. Web. 31.Mar.2011. <http://www.biothing.org/?cat=6> 5. ‘x_phylum’ Metaxy. Genetic Architecture. Web. 23 Mar. 2011. <http://www.metaxy.com/xphylum.html 6. ‘Phylox’ Metaxy. Genetic Architecture. Web. 23 Mar. 2011. <http://www.metaxy.com/phylox.html>
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