The emergence of complexity theory has shifted the conceptualization of form from the macro scale to a concern for the operation of the complex systems that underlie formation. It is from the microscale local interactions of complex systems that behavioral strategies for the generation of composite materials have emerged—strategies where architectural form, structure, and ornament emerge from the design of composite material behavior. . . .
The emergence of complexity theory has shifted the conceptualization of form from the macro scale to a concern for the operation of the complex systems that underlie formation. It is from the microscale local interactions of complex systems that behavioral strategies for the generation of composite materials have emerged—strategies where architectural form, structure, and ornament emerge from the design of composite material behavior.
The inherently organizational understanding of form offered by complexity theory is the basis for the development of “behavioral formation,” Kokkugia’s agent-based design process. This behavioral approach draws from the logic of swarm intelligence and operates through the self-organization of multiagent systems. These methodologies operate by encoding simple architectural decisions within a distributed system of autonomous computational agents. It is the interaction of these local decisions that self-organizes design intent, giving rise to a form of collective intelligence and emergent behavior at the global scale. Behavioral formation represents a shift from form being imposed upon matter to form emerging from the interaction of localized entities within a complex system.
Designing through nonlinear behavioral systems challenges the hierarchies that are embedded within design processes and the architecture derived from these methodologies. These nonlinear strategies have radical implications for the generation of architectural form, structure, and tectonics. The distributed nonlinear operation of swarm systems intrinsically resists the discrete articulation of hierarchies such as those within Modern architecture and contemporary parametric component logic. This resistance is indicative of a larger contemporary shift from a reductive approach to an understanding of complex phenomena. The bottom-up nature of swarm systems refocuses tectonic concerns on the assemblage at the micro scale, enabling a synthetic approach to designing across scales, from macro form to composite material. Rather than the detail being understood as a finer resolution of the whole, it is the behavioral interaction at the micro scale that becomes a generator of macrolevel form and organization. This is a polyscalar approach in which organizational logic is self-similar and independent of sequential relationships.
The nonlinear operation of behavioral formation enables architectural systems to operate within an ecology of interactions rather than as a sequential hierarchy. A potent example is the relation of structure and ornament. Rather than consider ornament as following or subservient to structure, their relationship can be recast in terms of mutual influence: structure informs ornament, while ornament informs structure. This enables structure and ornament to operate as behaviors within a single body of material rather than existing as discrete elements or geometries. The integration of structure and ornament within a single material has always been present within architecture, the nature of their relation shifting significantly through architectural periods such as the Gothic, baroque, or rococo. However, inherent to these movements or categorizations is the subservient nature of ornament.
To posit structure and ornament as systems of behavior is to consider their underlying rules at the micro level. So while structural and ornamental behaviors operate at the same micro scale, the nature of these behaviors may be vastly different. Possible structural behaviors include bundling of fibers, weaving of elements, separation of strands to develop structural depth, or matting of elements into shell structures. Ornamental behaviors operate with a more gestural intent, generating intricate and expressive affects. The interaction of structural and ornamental behaviors can operate either through the interaction of two discrete populations of agents (one structural and one ornamental) within an ecology, or through a single population that is capable of local differentiation. The latter approach relies on contextually sensitive rules that shift the behavior between structure and ornament depending on local conditions.
With advances in microimaging like the advent of the electron microscope, our understanding of matter has shifted from assumptions regarding the monolithic nature of material to notions of material as the accretion of high populations of microfibers, or fibrous assemblages. The micro behavior of multiagent systems enables architectural matter to be considered and designed in similar ways. If systems of behavioral formation focus design decisions and matter at the smallest scale, then a critical decision to be made is at what scale generative architectural design strategies operate. If modernity was concerned with the assemblage of discrete, mass-standardized elements (steel section beams, mullions, glazing units, prefabricated concrete panels, and so on), a design process focused on fibrous assemblages would have to consider the individual element to be at the submaterial level—or, at least at the level of the elements that assemble into composite materials. The logical extension of behavioral formation beyond the agency of geometry (strands, components, surfaces) or the agency of architectural elements (bricks, beams) is to consider the agency of matter.
Within fibrous assemblages and their fabrication as composite materials, the role of geometry is not discrete or reducible. Instead, geometry negotiates complex behaviors, such as structure and ornament, in generating emergent characteristics that exhibit local variation. The fibrous assemblages of behavioral composites compress tectonic hierarchies, shifting from discrete tectonic elements to highly differentiated continuous matter.
Fibrous assemblages are structurally nonlinear. Rather than being defined by predetermined hierarchies of primary, secondary, and tertiary elements, hierarchies emerge from within the nonlinear operation of fibrous assemblages as variation in intensity, capacity, and density. The blurring between systems such as structure and ornament extends to a blurring of classification of geometry. Composite fibrous assemblages resist being categorized as either surfaces or strands; strands within fibrous assemblages bundle and weave to form surfaces, while surfaces delaminate into strands. This blurriness is in contrast to the discrete articulation of structure and cladding that has emerged from the mass standardization of modernism. Within these composite fibrous assemblages there is no distinction between skin and structure; instead, every fiber operates structurally within a redundant, highly ornamental assemblage. Kokkugia’s Fibrous Tower Studies and Fibrous House (a collaboration with Texas A&M University College of Architecture) explore this at two scales. In the tower studies, fibers bundle to generate a shell that describes enclosure, resolves structure, and generates ornamental affects. Within this population of fibers there is a uniform rule set; there is no separation of elements into structure, skin, or ornament. Instead, the fibers negotiate between structural, topological, and ornamental behaviors embedded within each fiber. While the towers are designed in monolithic concrete, the Fibrous House explores the excessive matting of composite fibers at the micro scale as a strategy for generating surface.
An argument, and indeed motivation, for composite fiber construction is frequently premised on the desire for efficiency and structural performance. In contrast, the argument posited here is based on the ability of composite materials to negotiate competing design behaviors within a continuous whole and on an interest in the expressive nature of these generative assemblages. Designing at the level of the individual fiber has significant aesthetic implications for architecture when the population or resolution of these assemblages is dramatically increased. Setting aside formal, structural, and tectonic concerns, the aesthetic implications of high-population multiagent systems have been explored through behavioral drawings, the focus of the “Fibrous Assemblages” series of courses taught at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and RMIT University.1 These drawings, experiments in the generation of pattern across scales, examine how difference emerges from within these complex organizations and speculate on the affects that they generate.
This is not to suggest that the performance of fibrous assemblages is not of interest. To the contrary, the structural behavior of multiagent systems is part of an ongoing research agenda at Kokkugia.2 However, the argument here is that structure—or any other quantifiable criteria, for that matter—are not the drivers of formation, but merely principles that condition design behaviors. Likewise, material behavior can be considered an input, but not a principle generator of form. The ability to encode material agency, such as flexibility and elasticity, within geometry enables both subjective design behaviors and material constraints to be encoded. The interaction of these parameters with more esoteric design behaviors enables a highly volatile generative process that simultaneously responds to material behavior and to constraints.
While the algorithmic tools for generating fibrous assemblages are becoming increasingly sophisticated, the tools for the fabrication of fibrous composites are still largely emerging. For example, sophisticated robotic fiber-placement techniques are being utilized within the aerospace and yachting industries, however these techniques are primarily geared toward creating uniform surfaces as opposed to the complex and intricate geometry of the fibrous assemblages advanced here.3
A prototype, rather than be reduced to a test of the actual, can be considered as a tool for imagining the future. As such, the prototype, or architectural precursor, is often a fake, rooted in the current construction paradigm while straining to evocatively suggest a future architectural vision (in much the same way that Le Corbusier’s brick Villa Savoye masquerades as a concrete vision of modernism). We are now in a position to imagine a robotically or biologically generated fibrous architecture, but are left to handcraft its prototypes. The Fibrous House explores the implications of fibrous assemblages and behavioral composites at the level of the prototype, less an attempt to reify the digital model but more concerned with the fabrication of the emergent characteristics of the behavioral simulation. Designed through an iterative feedback loop between material experiments and digital generative processes, this prototype was fabricated through a similarly messy interaction of computer numerical control (CNC) forming and manual craftsmanship.
The architecture argued for here is possible, but infeasible without a change in construction paradigms. While imagining this architecture through prototypes is important, the ambitions of this work will ultimately be realized through robotic strategies or perhaps even bioengineering. The shift to robotic techniques is driven not by a desire for the seamless perfection of the current generation of fiber-placement technology, used in the construction of aircraft,4 but instead by a desire to reify the intricacy and intensity of complex systems at a large scale. This intricacy, the emergent outcome of behavioral methodologies, does not require a high-fidelity material reification of the digital model, but instead a precise translation of algorithmic behaviors into fabrication operations—behavioral fabrication. The emergent characteristics are important, rather than the exact dimension of topology of the geometry. This is an argument to compress design and fabrication into a single behavioral operation, one premised on stigmergic5 feedback between form and the instrument of formation. To compress design and fabrication is to firmly position the architect within the construction process, to shift away from the increasingly marginalized role of the architect as a consultant within the project-delivery system.
The last few years have witnessed the adoption of robotics within progressive architecture schools, as the possibilities inherent within the tighter integration of design and construction begin to evolve. This is leading to a hacker culture of custom-built machines and end-arm tooling, as well as the misappropriation of sophisticated robotics in the service of design rather than simply fabrication—experiments in which the behavior of the machine, with all its hacked imperfections, are critical to the characteristics of the generated architecture.
The feedback between material behavior, robotic logic, and nonlinear algorithmic techniques is beginning to coalesce into a coherent architectural approach. The instrumentalization of high-population multiagent models in the design of composite materials is blurring fundamental hierarchical distinctions within architecture. These behavioral composites dissolve tectonic hierarchies in generating a continuous and irreducible complex assemblage.
Author’s note: A version of this essay, titled “Fibrous and Behavioral Composites,” was originally written for thefunambulist.net, edited by Léopold Lambert.
1. Fibrous Assemblages is an ongoing academic research agenda that formed the basis for a series of algorithmic design-elective courses directed by the author at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and RMIT University during the 2011–12 academic year. ↩
2. An articulation of this research and an argument for behavioral structural formation is made by the author in the essay “Volatile Formation,” Log 25 (Summer 2012): 55–62. ↩
3. Mike Silver discusses the potential for architectural appropriation of the aerospace industry’s robotically controlled fiber-placement techniques in Silver, “Many From One,” Log 23 (Fall 2011): 30–33. ↩
4. Fifty percent of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a long-range jet airliner, is fabricated from advanced plastic composites, using robotically controlled tape fiber-placement. ↩
5. Stigmergy is a concept relating to the mutual feedback between an agent and its environment. The term is commonly used in biology to describe the relationship between ants and their pheromone trails. ↩