“Within a discipline where the exact translation of virtual instructions, in the form of drawings or codes, to their material actualization has historically played a decisive role, the current use of algorithmic design tools and computer numerical control (CNC) fabrication technologies would seem to all but eliminate the possibility for exactitude to submit to some external corrupting influence.”
*image: Keti CARAPULI, “Skin Fluctuation.” SCI-Arc. Marcelyn GOW, instructor.
images, clockwise from top left: Maya Alam, “Interference Fit Canyon”; Christina ANTON, “Synthetic Rhizome”; Jacques LESEC & Christopher MARTIN, “Transient Threshold.” Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Marcelyn GOW, instructor.
Within a discipline where the exact translation of virtual instructions, in the form of drawings or codes, to their material actualization has historically played a decisive role, the current use of algorithmic design tools and computer numerical control (CNC) fabrication technologies would seem to all but eliminate the possibility for exactitude to submit to some external corrupting influence. Paradoxically, the seduction of algorithmic precision has become partially exhausted in the fulfilled promise of its own fidelity. The absolute control of geometry and its materialization suppresses the potentiality of that which exceeds the firmitas, or solidity, of inert matter. This exhaustion gives way to a particular strain of contemporary design practice obsessed with capturing qualities that lie outside the realm of computational control and which appear to be incongruous to the processes and tools used to generate them, pursuing the apparent and actual vagaries of matter in flux, albeit through the use of highly controlled algorithmic and machinic processes. Here, the precisely figured melts into “the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.”1 In some instances, this incongruous state is engendered through contamination, whereby synthetic architectural systems become informed by the integration of organic substances; in other instances, through endowing material with sensing and actuating potentials, physically programming it to envelop and channel more evanescent forms of matter, thereby producing differential atmospheres. Rather than an adherence to the “lawful inscription of information,” as some proponents of a parametric approach to design would advocate, this sensibility embraces that which disturbs identity and challenges our engagements with matter.2
The relationship between synthetic systems and organic matter can be, and has historically been, considered in terms of entropy. “Construction = minus entropy” was the equation formulated by metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa in his 1969 “Capsule Declaration.” The job of the architect was, Kurokawa writes, “‘giving geometric order to a state of disorder.’”3 The metabolist agenda promoted an imbalance in the above equation on an organizational level through the encapsulation of architecture into units that could be reconfigured differentially over time. Today, it is instead a potential imbalance in the equation on an energetic level that plays a critical role in contemporary architectural discourse. Recent discussions centered on a more conscious and resilient administration of energetic and material resources in the production of habitable environments suggest a radical rethinking of Kurokawa’s equation. How does the design of architectural environments with the capacity to embrace entropic tendencies breed a new strain of architecture? What effects does the latent responsiveness of energetic exchanges—specifically the transfer of heat, moisture, sound, and light through an architectural medium—have on more extensive ecologies? The attitude toward states of balance and the lack thereof is relevant not only in terms of the statics of bodies in space, but also, more importantly, is relevant in an ecological sense. Imbalances become active as the impetus of design innovation. A composite approach to material and environmental architectural systems emerges in this work.
A studio course I taught in the Spring semester of 2012 as part of the Emerging Systems and Technologies|Media (ESTm) postgraduate program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) explored these issues further in terms of synthetic ecologies. Titled “The Imbalancing Act of Entropic Architecture,” the studio sought to design synthetic systems, taking into account their inherent material and physical biases and integrating them with performances gleaned from the biological realm. This calls for a novel understanding of the relationship between architecture, technology, and materiality, or what architect Alejandro Zaera-Polo has referred to as, “The interferences between nature and the artificiality of its physical support.”4 In his essay “The Politics of the Envelope,” Zaera-Polo proposes the incorporation of latent environmental and atmospheric performances into buildings in the interest of producing an architecture with the capacity to incorporate multiple forms of nature.
The application of digital technologies into design, information processing, and fabrication introduces an unprecedented level of precision into our transactions with matter. In this climate of assumed extreme technological precision, there are inevitably aspects of our environment that elude control, and which compromise and exceed the firmitas of inert substance. These aspects may be biotic, as in the case of vegetation, or climatic, as in a gradual engagement with the surrounding atmosphere through the filtering and exchange of air or water. The current paradigm is shifting from one in which architecture has historically suppressed the agency of matter in flux to one that engages with it; from control over to complicity with these fluctuating systems.
The studio developed a contemporary approach to the Vitruvian principle of firmitas through the use of materials that undergo shifts in their identity during the fabrication process. Various forms of composite materiality were investigated, such as the casting of fluid materials infused with microstructural elements for channeling air, water, and light. We conducted research into materials and modes of fabrication, with an emphasis placed on design techniques where morphological and material properties become allied to generate structural, environmental, and affective performance. In particular, we considered the qualities and structure of material organizations in vegetation, identifying how specific features augment various modes of performance including: water flow and storage, shading and cooling, responsiveness to sunlight, and efflorescence and color transformation. The hydrophilic and hydrophobic qualities of silicone and resin composites were activated as water-shedding or channeling devices. In some projects, responsive systems were integrated into the building envelope in order to generate, amplify, or tamper with atmospheric effects in the specific region in which they were located. A focus was placed on transmitting different forms of energy—moisture, light, sound, air pressure, and so on—through a material envelope. These exchanges of energy acted as a driver for design performance, modulating atmospheric moods through varying shade, color intensity, lighting effects, and auditory ambience.
Taking as a starting point recent characterizations of the Los Angeles River as an urban freakology, the studio examined the potential for enhanced complicity between architectural and biotic systems in the context of a proposal for a vivarium to house vegetation indigenous to the L.A. River.5 Sited adjacent to the L.A. River and the State Historic Park in downtown Los Angeles, the vivarium was considered as a constituent of the adjacent park as well as a facsimile and intensification of the L.A. River biotope, since the river itself is otherwise physically inaccessible to the public.
Landscape architect Gilles Clément’s concepts of the “third landscape” and “Planetary Garden” were important references, prompting exploration of “the relation between humanity and the environment as a coherent system” and the taking into account of the intermingling of climate, human activity, and both vegetal and inorganic substances.6 The historical role of L.A. River flood control as a form of tampering with hydrological flows, and its both deleterious and ameliorative effects on the ecosystem of the L.A. River watershed, exemplifies the complex and sometimes radical performance of a synthetic ecology. The studio explored the role of synthetic ecologies in architecture and considered how the constituents of such an ecology might contribute to its fluctuating performance on a variety of scales.
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The projects “Skin Fluctuation” by Keti Carapuli and “Transient Threshold” by Jacques Lesec and Chris Martin both deal with the filtration and collection of water and with producing an awareness of water as a vital resource. Skin Fluctuation incorporates a series of pneumatically inflated silicone bladders capable of collecting water from the L.A. River via capillary action and filtering it through an evaporative process. The collected water is subsequently channeled to irrigate vegetation on an adjacent site. Proximity sensors in the pneumatic bladders react to human interaction and, when activated, trigger an increase in the bladders’ internal air pressure. The increased pressure tensions the silicone membrane, making it more transparent and thereby exposing the purification process. This is intended to increase awareness of the river as a beneficial constituent of the urban environment.
Transient Threshold focuses on the collection, storage, and distribution of condensation that occurs during shifts in ambient air temperature. A composite system is developed using flexible silicone sheets that are infused with structural filaments capable of expanding surfaces for the accumulation of condensation. These surfaces contract and enclose water within a permeable enclosure. Macro– and microporosity are used in the interest of maximizing water circulation for the cultivation of a synthetic vivarium. In parallel, these units actively participate in the indexing of microclimates found within Los Angeles’s various ecologies. Sensors embedded within the assemblages collect data on humidity and temperature, contributing to a digital network stretching across the city. In conjunction with cultivating awareness about the fluctuation of water levels in the region at large, the site provides a dynamic interface for the public. The performance of these units poses interesting implications, calling into question our conventional understanding of threshold. The circulation of water from vessels located on the exterior of the building envelope to the biocapsules found on the interior effectively blurs the line between elements inside and outside.
The main concept in Christina Anton’s “Synthetic Rhizome” project is to allow for different water levels in the L.A. River to influence the massing and scale of a series of attachments to the concrete retaining walls of the river channel. These attachments act as anchors for root systems and create various forms of habitat in the process. The project acts as a synthetic rhizome, gathering and storing water, pulling stored water through a fabricated root system via capillary action, and using that water to nurture various species of plant life. Some areas of the design are rigid, while those that interact directly with water are semirigid. This tension between various rigidities is enhanced by the negotiation between smooth, curved surfaces and hard, tessellated surfaces. Rigid areas include places for inhabitation or the structure needed to hold the rhizomes. In the flexible orbicular geometries, rigid volumes are nested inside these more fluid geometries for structural support. Depending on water levels, these forms begin to float and the fabricated root system becomes engorged. In relation to the natural “freakology” of the region, elements native to the river, including detritus, will interact with the design, acting as an urban reef. An interactive vivarium that fluctuates to adapt to different elements indigenous to the river, the project’s form is never static—it may begin to move, swell, expand, and contract as a result of the changing environment.
“Interference Fit Canyon” by Maya Alam uses an entropic drawing process to capture the coalescence of solid and fluid states of matter within a single object. The drawing is comprised of contours that delineate a cube, with hard edges that appear to be soft from particular vantage points and soft edges that appear to be hard from others. These contours are mapped back onto the cube geometry in a transitional process whereby the legibility of the cube becomes progressively more inscrutable. The drawing process parallels the effects created by the presence of a cubic object within the L.A. River that disrupts the flow of water and accentuates the presence of detritus. A process of continual erosion acts differentially on the object over time, transforming its appearance and performance in relation to water flow.
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These projects address the potentials of entropic architecture broadly defined through a conscious embrace of corrupting influences—that is, engagement with organic substances, energetic exchanges, and matter in flux. Importantly, this points to a contemporary approach to design that challenges conventional notions of structural and environmental performance, solidity, and stasis, and one that disrupts the discrete identities of what is considered natural and artificial. As a process, this work involves a shift away from the precisely figured toward a more entropic state, approaching the abject. The abject, literally a derivative of the Latin word abjectus (to cast off or to jettison) is described by philosopher Julia Kristeva in her book The Powers of Horror as the reaction to a loss of distinction between the self and that which is other, involving a convolution of what we consider to be continuous or discontinuous.7 Here, the envelope of the body extends and its clear delimitation becomes viscid. In this work the envelope of architecture extends to encompass composite behaviors, conjuring the potentials of an architecture that embraces the fluxion of matter.
1. Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 207. ↩
2. See Patrik Schumacher, “Parametricism: A New Global Style for Architecture and Urban Design,” Architectural Design 79, no. 4 (July/August 2009): 14–23. ↩
3. Kurokawa asserted: “The basic kinetic form in which space develops is metabolism, and its process is expressed as an increasing entropy. ‘Construction’ (minus-entropy) which is repeatedly put in during the development of space metamorphoses the ‘organization’ of the space. Modern architecture needs a methodology of metabolism and metamorphosis.” Kisho Kurokawa, “Capsule Declaration,” in Metabolism in Architecture, ed. Kisho Kurokawa (London: Studio Vista, 1977), 85. Originally published in Space Design (March 1969), n.p. ↩
4. Alejandro Zaera-Polo, “The Politics of the Envelope: A Political Critique of Materialism,” Volume 17 (Fall 2008): 83. ↩
5. David Fletcher, “Los Angeles River Watershed: Flood Control Freakology,” in Kazys Varnelis, ed., The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles (New York: Actar, 2009), 36–51. ↩
6. Gilles Clément, Philippe Rahm, and Giovanna Borasi, Environ(ne)ment: Approaches for Tomorrow (Montreal: Canadian Center for Architecture, 2006). ↩
7. Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror, 1. ↩