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  • Embrace the Complex

    M. Casey REHM (Studio Kinch), Clock Two.
    troy NEW YORK

    “As do all reductive processes, the diagram entails an act of violence on at least a portion of the population it governs. Through generalization, translation, abstraction, and striation the diagram orders its constituents at times in conflict to their local necessity, whether they are tectonic or otherwise. While this conflict has been productive as a tool for innovation within the discipline of architecture, its tendency to reduce the relationship between the internal and external concerns of architecture to adversarial, or at best hierarchical, is limiting. This limitation becomes even more apparent given the contemporary global context . . .”

    *image courtesy the author.

    [EXCERPTED FROM FRESH PUNCHES ]

    *images courtesy the author.

    As do all reductive processes, the diagram entails an act of violence on at least a portion of the population it governs. Through generalization, translation, abstraction, and striation the diagram orders its constituents at times in conflict to their local necessity, whether they are tectonic or otherwise. While this conflict has been productive as a tool for innovation within the discipline of architecture, its tendency to reduce the relationship between the internal and external concerns of architecture to adversarial, or at best hierarchical, is limiting. This limitation becomes even more apparent given the contemporary global context, where an increased specificity and quantity of information on potential architectural relationships is readily available to students and designers alike. It seems peculiar that, in this context, the discipline of architecture in general has moved away from the fledgling explorations of complex systems and simulation as the primary methodology for design resolution in favor of a regression toward reductive representations of complex relationships and high-concept resolutions. We should not regress from the promise, laid out by Greg Lynn in Folding in Architecture, of an architecture of intensities that does not require the implication of program on discipline, or vice versa.1

    To be specific about the term diagram as used in this context, I am referring to the process of reductively striating received information (which is inherently already reduced) as a generative design mechanism. There was a time when this operation was essential to maintaining necessary control over the complex information and energy embodied by an architectural project, and essential to allow the designer to imprint their precepts and intentions. However, a different method has become increasingly viable in the use of the simulation, specifically the use of the complex adaptive system. (Simulation here refers to allowing organization to emerge through local relationships.) Simulation has long been a tool of the architect, though it has typically either been limited in its role within a project, as in the structural chain models of Antoni Gaudí, or limited by the sophistication of the tools used to explore it, as evidenced by the early animation-driven work of Columbia University’s paperless studios. Through both increased literacy in programing languages and the aggressive work by software manufacturers to improve the interface to base-level logic construction—that is, Grasshopper—students and designers have acquired the ability to specifically define relationships and behaviors between constituent entities within a system beyond the potentially irrelevant presets provided by animation tools.

    The necessity to engage complexity as a design tool has increased due to the increased fidelity and quantity of data available to the architect. The need is clearly evident in contemporary work involving environmental responsiveness. Within the environmental analysis of a project, simulation is already being leveraged to produce sophisticated understandings of context. However, these findings are applied to an architectural parti in either purely responsive, linearly parametric tectonic resolutions, or in the literal translations of diagrammatic output into totalizing form. The implication of continuing to operate in this manner is that, given the ever-increasing sophistication of received analytical content, disciplinary intention becomes increasingly submissive. Our diagrammatic approach is no longer capable of producing a dialogue with fine-grained contextual inputs, as it operates at too course a resolution. This is a path to homogenization and a lack of relevance for our profession.

    The solution is to engage the fine-grain contextual information in dialogue with our intentions at the scale in which we receive it. By insisting that every contextual implication is negotiated against our own intentions, through the evolving connections afforded us through complex simulations, we can ensure both an adequate response to global crisis and the continuation of theoretical design trajectories. The hierarchy between the two is dissolved and we are able to truly operate through moments of intensity in a mutable field of information and material.

    The pedagogical implication is that we need to produce students who can codify disciplinary intention and concept in terms of localized desires. It is an inversion of the method of positioning intention or concept at the level of the parti or massing of a project. Students need to become comfortable designing through the localized negotiation between both conflicting and reinforcing intentions. It is also important to accentuate the students’ individual eccentricities in order to avoid the homogenization implicit in negotiating massive quantities of received relationships. Students must learn to produce interventions at the atomic scale. Interventions for which the implications are so great that the turbulence they produce within the simulated system manifests uniqueness in the emergent order which can only be registered as the necessary excess of the architect: the concept.

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    [Studio Kinch]
    [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]


    1. 1. Greg Lynn, “Architectural Curvilinearity: The Folded, the Pliant and the Supple,” in Lynn, ed., Folding in Architecture, special issue (AD Profile 102), Architectural Design 63, nos. 3–4 (March/April 1993). 

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