Bizarre algorithmic design

“This titanium facial implant, for reconstructive surgeries, was essentially crafted by algorithms, and optimized to accelerate regrowth.” (Screenshot/Autodesk)

Writing in Wired, Margaret Rhodes opines in “The Bizarre, Bony-Looking Future of Algorithmic Design” that not only titanium face implants (above) and swingarms for motorcycles but buildings will be grist for the algorithmic mill. This is called “generative design,” as opposed to the “explicit design” that we’ve used to make buildings and most other things for centuries. Hey, mankind! Get with the program!

But wait. Here’s how a techie design-firm worker delineates the difference:

Jordan Brandt, Autodesk’s resident futurist, makes a clear distinction between explicit design and generative design. Explicit design is when “you have an idea in your head and you draw it,” he says. “Generative design is when you state the goals of your problem and have the computer create design iterations for you.”

With generative design, a designer begins with an objective or set of objectives — the desired energy consumption for a building, for example, or the amount of sunlight a room should receive — and then lets algorithms take the reins on drafting solutions.

While there’s no denying the potential for speed in algorithmic generative design, Brandt paints a one-dimensional idea of so-called explicit design. A creator does not just think up the image of a design and set it down on a blueprint. When “you have an idea in your head and you draw it,” that idea did not just spring like Adam’s rib from your brain. Nor is that idea merely the product of the maker’s brain recalling (or having researched) precedents for what he wants to make.

Life magazine Dream House, designed by Gary Brewer, partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, in 1994. (RAMSA)

Life magazine Dream House, designed by Gary Brewer, partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, in 1994. (RAMSA)

Long before that – perhaps centuries – others, perhaps thousands of others, gave thought to such a product, wondered how best to make it under the constraints of  the requirements, then actually made that product – say, a house.

Maybe it took more than a split second to conjure, but the result of bending the human mind toward getting the right amount of sunshine into a room might not be something to sniff at. Hundreds or thousands of craftsmen and professionals have been thinking it through using the best practices of their predecessors over long periods of time, each adding their own little bit to how to do it better and passing it on.

Given the subtlety of the human mind, perhaps this is the real generative design process. As for feeding a set of objectives into a computer so that algorithms can reach solutions, Jordan Brandt might want to consider the GIGO factor – garbage in, garbage out. How do his architechnicians know they are feeding in the right parameters? And how do they know the algorithms have been correctly set up to achieve a reliable solution?

What does asking for “the desired energy consumption for a building” entail? Has the fancy computer program’s set of algorithms ever heard of a roof overhang, adding perhaps to the shade of a porch? Does it factor in the angle of the sun? Or the option of closing the shutters, or of having a ceiling height that can handle a particular climate’s temperature range? Or may the set of algorithms is expected mainly to rely on an analyst plugging in all the available LEED-certified gizmo-green responses to nature’s vicissitudes?

Window washing peril at Hearst Tower last year. (blogs.wsj.com)

Window washing peril at Hearst Tower last year. (blogs.wsj.com)

Just wonderin’.

Architects tinkered for centuries, trial and error, accident or design, with how to leverage climate to render a building capable of satisfying light, heating, cooling and other climate requirements spelled out in different places all over the world. Architecture today has thrown all of that wisdom out on its ear – and behold the result!

Buildings are stressing out our environment to the max with ever-higher costs. Maintenance calls for high-tech “solutions” that are pushing the edge of the inefficiency envelope toward unaffordability and collapse.

Millions to engineer, for example, a platform from which window washers could clean the kooky accordionic fenestration of “Sir” Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York. And what does it do? It broke 50 stories in the air. Luckily, none of the workers fell to his death.

Would algorithmic design have called for a building with straight sides? Don’t bet on it!

University of Texas mathematician Nikos Salingaros and fellow architectural theorist Christopher Alexander thought all this through years ago. The most recent essays by Salingaros on architecture that reflects natural generative processes may be read in the journal Metropolis (linked from my post “Salingaros does Metropolis“).

And a doff  o’ the ol’ cap to Kristen Richards for popping this Wired.com essay into her miraculous ArchNewsNow.com. (Free good stuff!)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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