• The Computer’s In There Somewhere

    Fig. 4b: Material Fringe, 2011.
    ann arbor MICHIGAN

    “To discuss one’s teaching seems a straightforward affair, yet comes with the challenge of predicting one’s audience. It is one thing to speak to those on opposite sides of the issues and another to like minds. In the former, differences surface fast, while in the latter, broad overlaps often obscure meaningful discrepancies. Imagining that the Fresh Punches editors have gathered contributors who can speak to the exhibition’s technical virtuosity, I expect this volume will contain essays from experts in everything digital (assuring a case of the latter). If so, critical content will not come in the form of bold proclamations; we all believe too much in the profound productivity of technology to make it polemical. . . .”


    To discuss one’s teaching seems a straightforward affair, yet comes with the challenge of predicting one’s audience. It is one thing to speak to those on opposite sides of the issues and another to like minds. In the former, differences surface fast, while in the latter, broad overlaps often obscure meaningful discrepancies. Imagining that the Fresh Punches editors have gathered contributors who can speak to the exhibition’s technical virtuosity, I expect this volume will contain essays from experts in everything digital (assuring a case of the latter). If so, critical content will not come in the form of bold proclamations; we all believe too much in the profound productivity of technology to make it polemical. Listing the tool set does not satisfy either; these days, parametric software and digital fabrication are too ubiquitous to contrive stark novelty. A better bet would be that the subtle differences between related pedagogical practices, articulated here, sketch the terms of disciplinary progress.1 Though seemingly trivial, the specifics of sequence, regulation, and influence attributed to technologies and techniques forecast vital aspects of our nascent discourse.

    To draw out the meaningful distinctions in my own teaching, I will explain it in relation to two dominant trends in digital design: one that activates the capacities of matter within computational environments and another which generates dramatic aesthetics through complex algorithmic modeling. Both can be understood as advanced digital Projects that have abandoned a myopic focus on means (process) for an intense consideration of ends (output): the first in optimized architectural forms, systems, and materials, and the second in seductive imagery.2 My teaching shares tools and techniques with both of these practices, but differs in the relative importance ascribed to its constituent parts (computation, digital fabrication, and material exploration). These differences will be explained below, but one I will mention up front: the computer is both instrumental and background (thus the title of this essay). The sensible qualities of students’ constructed artifacts come from specific types of material exploration that are supported by digital forms and fabrications. Computation is deliberately subordinated, limiting its ability to produce the equivalent of design platitudes (through institutionalized techniques) by placing it in the service of another medium (material experimentation, in this case). Ultimately, this form of research expands the potentials of computation by restricting its influence, a move that has both physical and theoretical implications. Since definitive answers are always suspect and important debates should be perpetually open, these comments are offered as a contribution to the ongoing discussion regarding the role of technology in design education.

    Material Fringe
    “Material Fringe” is a seminar I teach at University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.3 In short, the course expands the discourse on materials and computation by combining digital techniques with material exploration. Initial work focuses on hands-on physical experimentation with various kinds of “fringe matter”—generally byproducts of manufacturing streams, recycled building materials, or materials typically understood to be outside conventional architectural use. The materials are irregular (either inconsistent castoffs of regular materials or nonmodular materials with no visible logic of construction) and require some degree of nonstandard development. Working in groups, students are assigned specific materials and charged with the task of translating them into viable architectural materials. Methods of assembly are developed through rigorous studies of material behavior. Tendencies are quickly identified: particulate materials are likely to bunch and pile while blocks and sticks often stack; fibrous materials are woven and bundled while surfaces drape. Crude experiments lead to the development of refined techniques, culminating in a catalogue of working material operations for each group.

    The introduction of digital techniques is strategic and measured. Instead of imposing ideal geometries onto the materials from the “outside,” the digital work focuses on extending the capabilities of the materials themselves, enabling them to aggregate in ways they otherwise could not. Students identify material limitations that can be mediated by digitally produced, extrinsic systems. Particulate materials, for example, have no way of building up substantial mass and require artificial support. Flexible surface materials need to drape over a substrate in order to cover larger areas. Problems such as these define the context in which the digital is deployed.

    Accompanying this text is a series of images from recent Material Fringe projects. For the sake of brevity, I will explain them in part. The first group (Fig. 1) cast glass cullet in a “live mold”—a dynamic template that produced a fluctuating relationship between mold and matter. Material techniques were developed to play off of the curvature of an undulating, CNC-routed mold, producing variability in translucency, texture, and thickness. The second group (Fig. 2) utilized used asphalt shingles supported by a doubly curved substructure comprised of ribs with small slots to hold the shingles. Each slot was carved at a different angle relative to the rib, altering the orientation of the shingles to the surface below. The third group (Fig. 3) treated a CNC-routed Styrofoam shape as a variable formwork, with topological folds acting as microsupports for clumps of melting plastic. The fourth group (Fig. 4) wrapped, bunched, and hung polyester batting from a steel substructure consisting of multiple flanges branching from a central spine. All four projects were cosmetically altered through various methods, amplifying or blending heterogeneous material components.

    Overall, the seminar provides an opportunity to consider the complex relationship between novelty and technical expertise. The relationship is a challenging one to navigate—while focus and specificity beget expertise, they can also discourage more experimental approaches to research. In this course, material exploration provides a context for novelty to emerge through an unscripted set of initial investigations that are only eventually aided by digital techniques. Computational expertise is not an end in itself, but rather a means of extending the results of some other form of experimental practice—in this case, material innovation. Thus, the work avoids a reactionary position of picking matter over (digital) form by insisting on the productivity of both.

    Material Fringe sits productively, if awkwardly, between two categories of digital design. The first is what I call the morphogenetic-material project, a line of research combining elements of material science, computation, and digital fabrication, and championed by architects Neri Oxman and Achim Menges (O/M).4 Through their research, O/M are righting the formal bias present in early digital design by assimilating the performative aspects of matter into parametric environments.5 Crucial to this work is a deep, technical understanding of material behavior that, when combined with computation, promises unprecedented architectural performance, making our structures lighter, thinner, and more efficient than ever before.6 Although research of this caliber is limited to top academic institutions, the ideology that underwrites it trickles down to less sophisticated work happening elsewhere and therefore constitutes a dominant trend.

    The second category also evolves from early digital design but lacks concern for material realization. Broadly speaking, this category encompasses the more overtly aesthetic digital work coming out of top European and American schools.7 Produced through highly sophisticated forms of algorithmic modeling, this work can be identified by its obscure stylistic renderings, often complete with atmospheric filters and strange, photorealistic textures. Early attempts at branding this work relied on general descriptors reflecting its technical sophistication—a level of refinement that had surpassed the crudeness of early digital experiments.8 Recently, however, these descriptors have lost traction, for they fail to address the unnerving aesthetics of more peculiar digital work (some of which is featured in the Fresh Punches exhibition). Still lacking a broad theoretical framework,9 this work is unfettered in its overt expressionism, perhaps the most important cause of its provocativeness. At the same time, its explicit stylization and lack of plausibility (in terms of current construction standards) makes it susceptible to criticisms from those who believe architecture needs more immediate viability in the world. With these two categories in mind, I will provide three critical framings of Material Fringe.

    Cool the Science
    Inherent in the morphogenetic-material project is an understanding that matter does work—all on its own, with little to no human intervention.10 The research of O/M translates this “work” (which for them means measurable properties) into computable variables for parametric environments. For example, a recent project by Menges at Stuttgart University’s Institute for Computational Design (ICD) utilizes the bending capacities of thin plywood to increase the structural performance of strip-like panels in a temporary pavilion.11 More specifically, panels are robotically fabricated so that when assembled the structural diagram changes from elastically bent to tensioned multiple times across its length, eliminating the need for external structure, decreasing member thickness, and reducing material use. This method of working necessitates technical knowledge of material behavior and characteristics, information that, when activated, frees matter to do architectural work. Projects like Menges’s pavilion illustrate the undeniable quality of this research within its specified scope; however, as a general model for design, this work is problematic, in that it fails to address vital aspects of architectural discourse due to its myopic focus on efficiency and optimization.

    In the hypercontrolled arena of parametric modeling, only a material’s quantifiable aspects—structural, thermal, acoustic, and so on—are recognized. Properties available for numerical translation are embedded in code, while qualities falling outside numerification are discarded. In other words, the dimensions of materials that connect to systems of meaning or philosophical paradigms,12 the potential subjective associations generated by a particular material palette,13 and the colors and textures that provoke vision and touch are ignored as they do not suit the rubric of performance.14 With its borrowed (scientific) authority, the morphogenetic-material project negates long-standing traditions of thinking on materials, ultimately circumscribing architecture’s agency.15

    Against this, Material Fringe activates all dimensions of materials, understanding that in its default state, matter offers ripe relations and potent affects. To this end, we keep matter raw and its formulations crude.16 Natural appearances are preserved or amplified, while behavioral tendencies are subtly supported, allowing materials to form themselves as best they can. In doing so, textures are maintained, colors expressed, associations ample, and experiences full.

    Art and Chaos
    With its specific style of engaging matter, Material Fringe outlines a design method needing a different ontological basis.17 The philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, in her writings on art, offers such an ontology.18 According to Grosz, art (which for her includes architecture) stems from the material and organic indeterminacy that surrounds us (chaos by her definition). By slowing down, decomposing, and harnessing chaos, artists extract sensations and affects that can be instantiated in new forms. Art isn’t conceptual. Concepts are byproducts of the primary act of intensifying matter: “Art enables matter to become expressive, to not just satisfy but also to intensify—to resonate and become more than itself.”19 Most useful for students of Material Fringe is a description of how to engage the world (and by extension the materials within it). In Grosz’s model, all matter affords opportunities for art, and it is the charge of the artist (or architect) to identify, extract, and expand the potentials latent within it.

    This acknowledgement of matter’s fullness, its potential to generate new intensities, is a critical component of Material Fringe. Students of the course are called on to cultivate the expressivity of seemingly simple matter that, in most cases, is buried and must be wrested from the material’s base properties. To this end, they abandon fundamentalist attitudes toward their materials, amplifying their expressivity in whatever means they see fit (painting, melting, warping, mixing, and so on). In this way, the work resonates with the second category of digital design mentioned above, for Material Fringe does not shy away from expressionism. The difference lies in the means by which it is produced: rather than laboriously generating qualities of disorder (strandlike forms, eroded masses, naturalistic textures, and so on) through highly complex forms of order (algorithmic modeling), our work tames disorder (unwieldy material behaviors and traits) by bringing it toward states of order (recognizable patterns, systematic aggregations, repeatable effects) through established architectural methods (rigorous experiments, cataloguing of techniques, repetition, identifying parts and wholes, and so on).

    Finally, Material Fringe offers concrete ways of influencing material sourcing and reuse. Although some of the course’s materials are off-the-shelf, others are donated by regional manufacturers (most often byproducts) or gathered locally from reuse and recycling centers. In this instance, the monetary structures classifying commercial materials are leveled under the assumption that all matter provides opportunities to generate novel architectural content. With our expanded capacities to arrange and alter materials (based in recent digital technologies), our work imbues new value into seemingly worthless matter. Ultimately, this kind of research has the potential to shape the world from the inside out. Innovation and integration are defined by the strategic insertion of foreign—that is, digital—codes into existing streams of production. This approach forgoes the ambition to restructure entire manufacturing processes in favor of a more targeted strategy of cleaving space for design within established protocols.

    In general terms, the discourse surrounding digital technology fluctuates between two poles: one technical, focusing on the “how,” and one theoretical, addressing the “what” and “why.” This will not and should not change; disciplinary progress necessitates movement on both fronts. Educators must maintain this balance and spot the meaningful differences their pedagogical practices offer the field. This is particularly important for those teaching with digital technologies, for the logics of computation drift too frequently toward the epistemology of science and engineering, fields where differences are not constructed but revealed from facts or efficiencies. In architecture as a cultural practice, value develops through design and discourse.20 This simple point is fundamental to design education, and the work and ideas shared here reflect my commitment to it.




    1. 1. Jeffrey Kipnis has written about the benefits stemming from disciplinary experts’ exaggerated importance of subtle differences. See Jeffrey Kipnis, “Ain’t Misbehavin’! An Ode to R&Sie(n)” Log 22 (Spring/Summer 2011): 83–89. 

    2. 2. Here, Project refers to an ongoing intellectual pursuit that develops through multiple designs as opposed to a single project, which is an isolated case. 

    3. 3. This course was taught twice: first, in the fall of 2010 (co-taught with Ellie Abrons), and second, in the fall of 2011. 

    4. 4. Other researchers could have been chosen to represent the morphogenetic-material project, but Oxman and Menges are arguably the leaders in this field, in part due to their substantial institutional support (Oxman with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and Menges with Stuttgart University’s Institute for Computational Design). 

    5. 5. See Neri Oxman, “Programming Matter,” in Achim Menges, ed., “Material Computation: Higher Integration in Morphogenetic Design,” Architectural Design 82, no. 2 (March/April 2012): 88–95. 

    6. 6. See the Architectural Design special issue “Material Computation: Higher Integration in Morphogenetic Design” for numerous examples. 

    7. 7. A sampling would include: Southern California Institute of Architecture; University of Applied Arts Vienna; University of Pennsylvania; Pratt Institute; Columbia University; and University of California, Los Angeles. A closer look would trace this work back to influential individual instructors (some advising the students included in the Fresh Punches exhibition). 

    8. 8. See Ali Rahim and Hina Jamelle, eds., “Elegance,” Architectural Design 77, no. 1 (January/February 2007). 

    9. 9. Although architect Mark Foster Gage has perhaps laid the groundwork for a more robust theoretical framework for this work with his compendium of writings on beauty. See Mark Foster Gage, ed., Aesthetic Theory: Essential Texts for Architecture and Design (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2011). 

    10. 10. For a convincing account of the “work” done by matter see Sanford Kwinter, “Flying the Bullet: or When Did the Future Begin?,” in Rem Koolhaas and Sanford Kwinter, eds., Rem Koolhaas: Conversations with Students (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 68–94. 

    11. 11. See Achim Menges, “Material Resourcefulness: Activating Material Information in Computational Design,” Architectural Design 82, no. 2 (March/April 2012): 88–95. 

    12. 12. The work and writing of Sheila Kennedy considers the many dimensions of materials as they relate to architectural design and contemporary culture. See Sheila Kennedy and Christoph Grunenberg, Material Misuse (London: AA Publications, 2004). 

    13. 13. See Juhani Pallasmaa, “Hapticity and Time: Notes on a Fragile Architecture,” Architecture Review 207, no. 1239 (May 2000); see also, David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993). 

    14. 14. There are two definitions of performance present within architectural discourse today. One appeals to architecture’s social, cultural, and political potential while the other reflects architectural systems thinking (optimal structural loading, HVAC, sustainability, and so on). The second is the one that I am referring to here. Architecture theorist Jeffrey Kipnis has lectured about the first idea of performance at University of California, Los Angeles and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (among other places) and the second notion of performance is referred to repeatedly in “Material Computation: Higher Integration in Morphogenetic Design.” 

    15. 15. For a discussion on the problematic similarities between strands of architectural discourse and science see Amy Catania Kulper,“Scientism: The Breeding Ground for Current Architectural Trends: or, Towards an Architectural Monoculture,” in Alberto Perez-Gomez, Anne Cormier, and Annie Pedret, eds., ACSA 99: Where Do You Stand?, proceedings of the 99th Annual Conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), March 3-6, 2011 (Montreal: ACSA, 2011), 21–28. 

    16. 16. I have written about such an approach more extensively in a paper presented at ACADIA 2011 titled “Digital Materiallurgy: On the Productive Force of Deep Codes and Vital Matter.” 

    17. 17. I am not one who argues for universal design ontologies. For the purposes of Material Fringe, I present Grosz’s ontology as a provisional one, useful for the ideas and methodologies underwriting the course. 

    18. 18. See Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008). 

    19. 19. Ibid., 4. 

    20. 20. See note one for reference to the importance of valuing, and revaluing, disciplinary aspects. 

    , , , , , , ,

  • Leave a Comment

    Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.