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The Digital Design Ecosystem: Toward

a Pre-Rational Architecture
Paul Seletsky
Sr. Mgr. of Digital Design, SOM New York

Note: This essay appears as the forward to a new book on digital practice arriving this
summer, "Provisional Practice: Emergent Modes of Production in American
Architecture," edited by Jon Dreyfous, Elite Kedan, and Craig Mutter.

Thirty years since its introduction, the personal computer’s impact on visual and
industrial design has been unprecedented; changes in productivity and form-making
have been pervasive. Digital technology’s impact on architectural practice, however,
has not yet significantly altered the established landscape of paper-driven
documentation or design process. Increased productivity, moreover, now threatens
architects as primary leaders of the design process. This particular dichotomy beckons
closer examination and discussion.

An Architecture of Our Time


Every generation seeks to create art as a manifestation of its time. Industrialization,
and the concomitant increase in production of goods and services, implied that life—
and thereby architecture—could no longer be viewed as before. One can ascribe
Modernism’s advent to this equation. Adolf Loos would admonish architects to
abandon “ornament as crime,” while Le Corbusier chastised those with “eyes that do
not see.” Science, it was held, offered no room for equivocation, on the premise that
advancements in knowledge led to broader advancements for mankind. Enter an
heroic era.
Adolf Loos - Chicago Tribune Competition 1922

The writings and work of Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies sought to instill
architectural meaning through representational embodiment of industrialization,
alluding to what might someday be achievable and portending vast social and political
consequences. Modern architecture’s new raison d’être, in particular, was improving
public health. The clean white surfaces of Aalto’s Paimio Sanitorium, devoid of
bacteria-laden crevices, offered rehabilitation from tuberculosis. Frank Lloyd Wright
focused on new formal and spatial expressions. He envisioned the human spirit
uplifted by architecture (as the Church historically had), in turn promoting a new
social order—in this case utopian democracy. Louis Kahn’s inspiration from the
performative conditions found in ancient Roman engineering encouraged him to
disseminate its spirit to others, albeit through an implicit metaphorical dialogue, “I
asked the brick what it wanted to be….”
Alvar Aalto - Paimio Sanatorium 1929

From the mid-twentieth century onward, architects sought artistic and social currency
posited on a variety of theoretical merits: exposed programmatic function and
structure; reference to historical elements and proportional formulae; and embodiment
of ideas espoused in avant-garde film, literature, and alternative social behavior. The
personal computer not only heightened this dialogue but permitted architects to
conduct new formal (blobby) as well as superficial (surface-as-sign) experiments.
Today, an elitist cadre holds certain architects in esteem as purveyors of the
penultimate collectible art. In the broader public spectrum, such matters are
inconsequential. Architecture remains a luxury and, when considered at all, is
expected only to deliver “firmness, commodity, and delight.”

Modernism’s failure to enact a new social order inevitably reduced its aesthetic
references down to surface frontispieces: Venturian billboards. Richard Meier
transformed Le Corbusier’s white-on-white utopian visions successfully into
mannerism; Roy Lichtenstein, imagery into newsprint pixilation; and Andy Warhol,
portraiture into pop iconography. The Modernists’ polemical calling for cultural
transformation was unable to exact tangible social change and inevitably fell into
obscurity. To rephrase Le Corbusier’s famous pronouncement, “Revolution was
avoided.”
(Left) Le Corbusier - Villa Stein 1927. (Right) Richard Meier – MOCA Barcelona
1995.

Elitism and Epiphany


Minimalist Modernism’s ongoing appeal as an aesthetic favored by many talented
young architects may seemingly preclude such dismissal but only inasmuch as certain
established musical genres may be considered progressive or ‘classic.’ The
comforting familiarity of boundless interplays of geometry and surface are today
paraded fashionably by a photogenic retinue. Image merchants foist monthly
publication in design journals. A portrait of the architect as young aesthete generates
little traction toward social awareness beyond an urban middle-class’s fascination
with ‘cool’ (albeit unobtainable) prefab housing, and those institutions desiring
upscale architectural ‘branding.’ Architecture as cultural phenomenon may raise
public awareness as to its creative genre, but the portrayal is short-lived as one more
form of retinal stimulation in a media-saturated society.

Frank Gehry’s use of technology can be viewed in a different manner. The computer
enabled his practice to design and construct buildings of great formal complexity,
borrowing other industries’ methods, and delineating the work into chapters preceding
or following its inception. An underlying epiphany, however, arose through other
architects observing that his use of technology could reinvigorate and empower
architectural practice, dispelling notions (to some) that architects served merely as
‘exterior decorators.’ Gehry’s exemplar, comparable to Brunelleschi’s approach
during the Renaissance, merits closer examination.

Gehry Technologies, the commercial software enterprise complementing Gehry’s


success in formal practice mirrors a similar venture by SOM in the early 1980’s. Both
suggest that architects have much to gain exploiting the opportunities afforded them
by the PC; both altruistically seek to reestablish the creative and technical primacy of
architects.
Willis and Woodward in their insightful essay, Diminishing Difficulty (Harvard
Design Magazine Fall 2005/Winter 2006), call for similar technological ascendancy.
They challenge architects to think beyond the PC’s current applications and assess
potential impact on the conceptual design process. Failure to act, they argue, will only
further erode any remaining credibility. Grandma can now produce the same
sophisticated 3D kitchen models as her architect grandson or granddaughter,
purchasing the software via late-night infomercial. However, the PC’s debunking of
architectural mystique—deciphering floor plans as readily as hieroglyphics—could,
they claim, help foster new areas of expertise. A discussion of architecture and
medicine may shed some light on this subject.

Medicine, Architecture, Science and Society


A divide between architecture and medicine, encompassing similar accordance of
expertise, evolved sometime prior to the French Enlightenment. Medical practitioners
in France began to embrace science and scientific method to counter wholly intuitive
practices stemming from Antiquity. Blood-letting, for example—a selective draining
of the body’s blood supply through controlled surgical incisions—was considered a
panacea for many illnesses. Scarificators, machines which automated the procedure,
were devised in response to its widespread practice. Barbers eventually became
official implementers, relieving physicians of the task. The barbershop pole, once-
common street signage, notified the public as to available ‘treatment.’

Points for blood-letting – Hans von Gersdorff, 1517.


(Left) Elizabethan Barbershop, circa 1592. (Right) Barbershop – Scotland.

Medicine thus evolved from crude practice to formal education and training,
supplemented by aggregation of codified knowledge. Rigorous trial and error
validated methodologies. Encyclopedia, such as Diderot’s pioneering System of
Human Knowledge, facilitated a broader avenue for sharing information and
advanced not only science, mathematics, and history—quantifiable areas—but
philosophy, art, and poetry. Once disparate realms became harmonized and fostered
greater comprehension of the human condition.

(Left) Portrait of Denis Diderot by Louis-Michel van Loo 1767. (Right)


Encyclopédie.
French social caricaturists in the mid-nineteenth century portray prevailing public
opinion of doctors as ‘quacks,’ medicine as ‘quackery.’ Architects are equally derided
for their intuitive methods. Doctors took such criticism seriously and responded with
concerted effort to engender trust. They surpassed their architectural counterparts at
the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and, two-hundred years hence, have become
regarded as providers of services critical to preserving public health, safety, and
welfare. Architects never challenged such authority—arguing, perhaps, that an
improper handling of the scalpel might entail consequences comparable to brick or
steel.

(Left) Pigal – Ça Va Mal! circa 1830. (Right) Daumier – R. Macaire Architecte 1837.

Medicine’s historic rapprochement—parlaying technical knowledge into creative


insight (examination), interpretation (diagnosis), and expertise (prescription)—
cemented its position within society. Creativity was not subjugated but augmented,
and simplicity equaled to a striving for clarity. Ockham’s Razor, a precept of
scientific method, advocated ‘shaving’ or minimizing assumptions when testing
hypotheses, portending the simplest solutions as resolving the most complex
problems. Modernists argued similarly: Picasso sketched the bull throughout his
lifetime, drawing it with great detail in his youth and, in the end, reducing it to but a
few simple lines.
Pablo Picasso Bulls

The public’s regard for interpretive reasoning as standard medical practice is now
resolute. Radiologists, not lab technicians, are relied upon to interpret x-rays.
Surgeons must correctly assess medical conditions and warrant procedures, or face
malpractice claims. Action implies subsequent reactions, and comprehensive
knowledge of physiology and procedures is mandatory—applied through practice, not
multiple-choice exams. This foundation lays the groundwork for interpretive
reasoning and, in turn, licensure.

Processor-laden supercomputing enables much of the resultant feedback and


monitoring mechanisms critical to medical research. Cellular growth and behavior, for
example, are studied virtually and physically, thereby augmenting experimentation.
Medicine found enlightenment—and public trust—through structured knowledge and
applied technology. That architecture must now do the same is the next great subject
of debate.

Ideology, Authority, and Responsibility


Ideologues have long argued that architecture must ultimately differentiate itself from
construction or vocation; that virtue lies within an intellectual realm fashioned not by
physical manifestation but, rather, social commentary. This author would argue
otherwise: Technical architectural practice can be imbued liberally with theory and
artistic license but must also be validated by integral analysis and simulation.
Architecture which incorporates, rather than applies, such engineering methodologies
will distinguish itself from current ontology, and dramatically alter prevailing societal
and artistic recognition.

Hammer, nails, and wood are offered to contractors and architects alike. Contractors
waste no time using their tacit knowledge to instinctively hammer nails into wood.
Architects, however, apply formal training to question all matters related to these
objects. They refrain from taking action, relying instead on explicit knowledge from
expert consultants before proceeding further. Such reticence hinders creativity and is
governed by fears over liability rather than expanding knowledge. Environmental
simulation applied simultaneously within the design process could augment ideas and,
given their purview, substantiate architects’ expertise. Knowledge does not obviate
dialogue—to the contrary, it elevates it. Authority, however, is conferred only on
those willing to take responsibility for their actions.

Form Follows Factor: Pre-Rational Design


Morphology, as architects currently derive it, is the culmination of ideas which
painstakingly synthesize meaning from metaphoric and/or programmatic exploration.
Unique ‘methods’ of introspection often distinguish those considered ‘masters’ versus
journeymen. Post-rational analytic and physical endurance tests are typically applied
to formal concepts—demonstrating resistance to environmental conditions but,
conversely, preventing those same conditions from having a pre-rational, or a priori,
influence on form-finding. Software addresses some needs for immediacy but
embellishes procedural matters over process change.

Pre-rational design aims to validate the strategic provenance of architects by using


advanced computation to impart tacit and explicit experience into the earliest stages of
conceptual exploration. In 2007, this gave impetus to an initiative called the Digital
Design Ecosystem (DDE), founded by participants from Georgia Tech, Square One
Ecotect, Gehry Technologies and SOM. The DDE transforms design ‘vision’ into a
broader informational perspective. Form is subjected to a variety of analytical and
environmental considerations through a multi-processor framework, accelerating
iterative feedback. Design sensibility is neither precluded nor subjugated but
augmented through a collective knowledge-base of tools and methods.

The Digital Design Ecosystem


The Digital Design Ecosystem seeks to address a number of designs’ “what-ifs:”

• What if multiple design concepts could be produced in significantly less time?


• What if design iterations could be significantly accelerated and then
compared?
• What if performative factors could be incorporated to help shape design?
• What if design constraints could generate or ‘value-engineer’ new design
options?
• What if building information models could moderate actual building
performance?

During the conceptual design phase, traditional space planning takes programmatic
requirements and drives a number of organizational schemes using area calculation.
The Digital Design Ecosystem uses advanced computation to accelerate this process
and integrate performative loads—air exchange, occupancy, and egress—to create
spatial classifications and room typologies. 3D massing models integrate those
typologies and impart normative and constrained spatial relationships into ‘block and
stack’ models. Environmental and financial analysis is then applied to these 3D
models—integrating new and preexisting software—to generate an exponential
number of design considerations, or feedback. The Digital Design Ecosystem can
dynamically accelerate, recalculate, and reprioritize form based on needs, enabling
varied iterative development and selection.
Some of the concepts of the Digital Design Ecosystem. (Courtesy: SOM, 2008)

Design is thereby transformed from a highly linear process into an elliptical one. A
holistic landscape—similar to the gauges on an automobile dashboard, or the display
monitoring a hospital patient’s vital signs—enables a broader design purview through
analysis, simulation, and dynamic 3D models, broadcast simultaneously across
multiple screens.

Collaboration, Carbon and Comprehension


The Digital Design Ecosystem implores reexamination of the collaborative design
process: ‘Tags’ versus files and folders; product metadata versus specs; specialist
input at project onset versus outset; component cost, availability, and delivery
searched and tracked through Google; code compliance fed by automated routines;
information delivered simultaneously versus sequentially. Impact of the Digital
Domain on architectural information processing and delivery will be comparable to
the Industrial Revolution.

Architects have more to offer their clients and society than previously realized—
without compromising their design integrity. Integrating design morphology, material
properties, and environmental conditions to interoperate and inform one another is
extraordinarily possible from a technological standpoint—if the need for such
development is taken seriously. Mandating architectural science (distinct from
building science) as a foundation for architectural expertise—comparable in breadth
and scope to medical research—could be accomplished through funding from the
National Science Foundation.

Broad societal concerns, such as depletion of the earth’s resources, will focus public
attention increasingly on architects’ compliance with building regulatory
requirements. Ironically, the US Green Building Council, Architecture 2030, and
Architects for Humanity have fostered broader awareness in this area than any of the
more well-established professional organizations. Architects seeking to incorporate
green design logic into their work need not succumb to intuitive green design frenzy,
however. Metrics derived from the Digital Design Ecosystem will enable them to
speak above the fray, similar to automobile fuel efficiency or appliance power
consumption ratings.
Performance simulation for green design. (Courtesy: SOM, 2008)

Technologically-driven form-finding is not an attempt to pre-configure or automate


design. A pushbutton, one-size-fits-all approach holds no quarter. Performative
feedback is intended to increase the amount of design information available to
architects, not decide for them. The Digital Design Ecosystem will necessitate
training architecture students to calibrate and test the tools they are employing, in
order to fully understand and validate the results being generated—as medical interns
have done for years. Architectural licensure can then be governed by substantial
hands-on practice, with expertise derived from implementation of fundamental design
principals and metrics.

A Momentous Opportunity for Change


Medical internship is firmly rooted in performative practice. Architecture is not.
Design curricula aimed at teaching architectural aesthetic self-discovery should be
dramatically augmented, not displaced, by technology. Educational change will not
occur via acquisition of new computers or teaching specific software but as an
endemic redirection which jettisons antiquated practices and modernizes internship.
Fluency in advanced software programming languages will be critical to enabling new
methodologies, as will broader, less insular, dissemination of academic research. A
post-graduate “low-wage for master apprenticeship” syndrome lowers architects’ self-
esteem and encourages client denigration. Licensing exams which focus on
comprehension of physical accessibility and safety but deny candidates the right to
identify their mistakes—to learn from them—are inexcusable.

BIM’s deployment in the AEC marketplace has not been lost on construction
managers and owners’ representatives, whose desire to rein in costs does not
particularly bring architects first to mind. The specter of using BIM to ‘borrow’
schematic architectural design concepts—incorporating them solely as ‘themes’ into
built work—suggests architects abdicate other responsibilities. Daumier’s caricatures
resonate from a century ago, and unless architects avail themselves of their Golden
Calf-like worship of form following ‘starchitecture,’ a preordained future hovers
beyond.

Early Modernism’s aspirations may have ended as appliqué but a momentous


opportunity for change still exists. Integration of analytical technology into the design
process and interpretive skills facilitated through internship will establish codified
architectural science without forgoing parametric geometry or relinquishment of
aesthetic ideals. To the contrary, their significance will increase and enable a
coalescence of science and art.

Mies van der Rohe’s words, spoken some fifty-eight years ago at the Illinois Institute
of Technology, still ring true and should serve as a clarion call to architects
everywhere:

“Technology is rooted in the past. It dominates the present and tends into the future. It
is a real historical movement—one of the great movements which shape and represent
their epoch. It can be compared only with the Classic discovery of man as a person,
the Roman will to power, and the religious movement of the Middle Ages.
Technology is far more than a method, it is a world in itself, as in gigantic structures
of engineering; there technology reveals its true nature. There it is evident that it is not
only a useful means, but that it is something, something in itself, something that has a
meaning and a powerful form—so powerful in fact, that it is not easy to name it. Is
that still technology or is it architecture?

And that may be the reason why some people are convinced that architecture will be
outmoded and replaced by technology. Such a conviction is not based on clear
thinking—the opposite happens. Wherever technology reaches its real fulfillment, it
transcends into architecture. It is true that architecture depends on facts, but its real
field of activity is in the realm of significance.

I hope you will understand that architecture has nothing to do with the invention of
forms. It is not a playground for children, young or old. Architecture is the real
battleground of the spirit. Architecture wrote the history of the epochs and gave them
their names. Architecture depends on its time. It is the crystallization of its inner
structure, the slow unfolding of its form. That is the reason why technology and
architecture are so closely related. Our real hope is that they will grow together, that
some day the one will be the expression of the other. Only then will we have an
architecture worthy of its name: Architecture as a true symbol of our time.”

Programmes and Manifestos on 20th Century Architecture. Ulrich Conrads. MIT


Press.

© Paul Seletsky 2008 All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be
distributed or reproduced without the author’s expressed written consent.