SmartGeometry interview

“Watch what I do, and return it to me in an editable form…”

“Playing through your design history…”

(paraphrasing) “Ideas of moving parts in architecture become much easier to think through once you see it moving on the screen…”

“… will result in people I would describe as ‘digital craftsmen’”.

These are just a few of the interesting thoughts that come up in this interview (click “Watch Robert Ivy…”) with the founders of the SmartGeometry Group (a software developer from Bentley, an engineer from Arup, and some architects, I think). Despite the rather bumbling style of the interviewer, the discussion gets quite interesting as the movie goes on.

What’s admirable about these SmartGeometry guys is that they’ve really gone and written software that can be used flexibly in a serious design process. They approach it not from the point of view of the convenience of managing the construction process from end to end (which is what Building Information Management — BIM — software proposes to do), but rather from the point of view of the designer who wishes to work with more precision upon his own terms. This kind of software project seems so much better in almost every way than Autodesk and Adobe’s bloated, domineering offerings.

That said, two gripes:

1. This is what architects have always done — it annoys me that the four chaps in the interview fail to mention this. Building design has always had ‘parameters’ whose variation drives most decisions. Architects have typically managed this parametric model through memory and a combination of drawings at various levels of fixity (from sketch to construction document). How much flexibility is being lost by digitizing all our objects/terms? How loosely could we consider the ‘parameters’ for the software? Could some be manual/analog inputs?

2. Is an iterative process really the only kind of design process that software can help us with? By hyper-accelerating this are we heading for new kinds of trouble? And if each designer becomes this master of his own tools will we be able to share expertise with each other constructively? Or is this just the ultimate way for designers to lock in high fees through developing inscrutable ‘signature styles’? (of course Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebeskind and others have already done this successfully with rigorous design processes that were only slight computer enhanced).

But then the fact that sharing expertise WILL still be important gives me hope that we will need another layer of software tools, ones which help us share all the various parametric models we’re going to be churning out.

I should note that I have yet to try using Generative Components. After this interview I am even more eager to try.

3 comments to SmartGeometry interview

  • jd

    The evolving theorization of digital design would seem to be defined most productively via conceptualizations of drifts in a ‘ground’ – (maybe another application of the media-scape) – and it is in this regard that a critical, if unoriginal, parsing of the so-called ‘McLuhan Equation’ – “The medium is the message” – would be instructive. As many of George’s readers may well be aware, McLuhan is not referring to an inhalt/gehalt formulation; he is not actually commenting on particular ‘messages’ at all. Rather, McLuhan directs our attention to the systems of production/transmission, to specific material configurations and their concomitant (unintended) consequences.

    Many in the design disciplines endeavor to engage these systems not simply productively, but critically. This critical stance necessitates an evolution of the designer’s understanding of the contemporary message-medium, or message-ground, as well as content strategies. It is in light of this that a rather strange palimpsest may prove useful – it was Adorno who articulated the necessary tension between ‘art’ (defined broadly and tautologically) and ‘forces of production’ – that the Critical must position itself upon the knife-edge of total subsumption, of oblivion; it must be simultaneously ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ in relation to orthodoxies of production, of the ‘ground’ of the message-medium, which has become a fast-moving target indeed. This arms-race within the rational-relational complex has resulted in shifts from static ‘composition’ to the self-consciously process-driven: from the various ‘constructions’ of twentieth century art to the iterative, the recursive, and the algorithmic of recent decades.

    It has been argued that there is no contemporary, living mythology, ground-conditions being too unstable. Architecture, about 60 years after the fine arts, finally vacated its millennia-old abode: reification of the mythos. It had to; there was simply nothing left to reify. It is possible that through criticality design may explore replacement systems; if the algebra of myth-formation has become ineffectual, then perhaps a calculus is possible. This is complicated by the very necessity of maintaining a critical distance, which has historically meant either being leader or follower (i.e., characterizing the distance from already-existing systems). It is no longer nearly so tempting to pursue the alternative, a radical de-coupling (utopianisms), as it by definition serves as negative confirmation. It may be a reality that dominant systems need less and less time to subsume what were, at one point or another, effective critical stances. Possibly (cynically) this explains the already cliché narrative arc of the careers of the starchitects’ generation – an imprimatur gained from academia as critical designers en route to becoming state- and institutional-architects par excellence. If this is the case, it may be that the world (at least many parts of it) has already excluded the possibility of engendering significant architectures (at traditional scales and by traditional means), in which case it will be left to designers desiring a critical approach to define not simply a response, but projects in toto.

  • George

    Heh, this is a great sequence of points, one that I am for the most part able to follow and agree with.

    “Media as a ground” — or, really, as material — does seem an appropriate metaphor. The way you describe it, however, the ground has turned to water: If we liken Adorno’s critical position to that of a surfer on a wave, balancing between critique and practice (or however you wish to formulate it — my ignorance is legion here) on the wave of technological ‘progress’, then I’m afraid we are heading for the natural, inevitable conclusion of all surfing runs — the wave is breaking, and the surfboard is slowing, losing headway.

    Two questions:
    1. What is this “negative confirmation” of Utopianism? Do you mean, in effect, escapism? Because that would seem to be the dominant mode of design these days.

    2. Can you unpack your “algebra”/”calculus” statement? You mean that through a process of sub-sampling towards the limit of zero, we might develop the intelligence to find the key moments (minima, maxima, breaks in the function, etc.) in popular culture that would have the broad appeal and clarity of myth? Forgive my literalness, but in fact I do believe something similar to this.

    I love your final statement, that architects can no longer rely on the traditional forms of patronage — that they will need to become their own clients, or, really, generate their clients, if they want to feel good about their work. Which is really how politically-inclined intellectuals have operated for a long time, it seems to me. (I’m going to see the Coast of Utopia tomorrow night! Perhaps related…).

  • jd

    Before addressing the numbered questions, a response to your concerns about the fluidic aspect of the ‘ground’ concept: the surfer analogy is apt in the sense that the relevance or critical force of any work is not immutable, but not as a general caution, when it runs towards teleology. As systems ‘exterior’ to works evolve, the works’ resonances with those systems wax and wane. It has been argued that concern about the fluidic aspect is unfounded, in an Epicurean sense (the thing IS, so don’t worry about it): “one may certainly admire man as a mighty genius of construction, who succeeds in piling up an infinitely complicated dome of concepts upon an unstable foundation, and, as it were, on running water.” This sardonic characterization is from one of Nietzsche’s early essays (1873). It is the embrace of this condition that underpins the algebra/calculus analogy.

    The deep instability of human conceptualization is not new, but for centuries the rates of change of cultural and material systems were slow enough, and, paradoxically, the traumas severe enough, that the conceptualizations of those systems could shift subtly, almost imperceptibly. For the last several hundred years, however, the world has experienced ever accelerating rates of change. Many of our mechanisms of conceptualization have been unable to keep pace, and have either become detached or discarded.

    A calculus of conceptualization would operate on a second order, where fluid dynamics replace terra firma. Here it is interesting to recall Deleuze and Guattari’s maritime model of the smooth and the striated (that old chestnut), which posits the open ocean as smooth space par excellence (from a human perspective anyway), yet that very smoothness makes it particularly amenable to striation – its neutrality accepted without distortion the palimpsest of the star-map, the grid of latitudes and longitudes, and finally the mastered smooth space – what the Pentagon refers to as “battlespace.” It is critical that this re-attainment of a smooth condition is predicated on the same limited terms and definitions of power-relations as the initial smoothness. Another excellent diagram of the open sea as epistemological territory is Lewis Carroll’s map from “The Hunting of the Snark”: an empty rectangle, with conjecturally relevant concepts arbitrarily ordered along its left, right and top borders, reading from lower-left corner clockwise: nadir, north pole, west, meridian, torrid zone, latitude, north, equator, south pole, equinox, east, zenith, longitude. Terra firma cannot be ceded if it was never gained.

    An embrace of this radical uncertainty is a means (one particularly relevant today) of avoiding ‘negative confirmation,’ a concept stemming from Adorno’s aesthetics (which is famously resistant to generalization, so please consider any references to be fragmentary and never summary). The utopian project is troubling for Adorno when it/as it engenders an ‘ideology of domination’, a totalizing logic. The work of art maintains criticality only insofar as it indexes the ‘fissures’ of dominant modes, which means that the work must harbor simultaneously itself, its own concept, and its negation. The ‘negative confirmation’, an example of which would be Joycean aesthetics (that outlined by Stephen Daedalus/Hero, not that actually embodied by Joyce’s works), moves from the fantasy of the tabula rasa to an internally fully-integrated reality. This includes not only ‘escapist’ works, but also far more ‘serious’ works which would hope to ‘remake’, ‘reform’ the world (e.g. – the sorts of projects which utilize simulation, but make the mistake of believing that it is only the changed aspects which form the intervention, when in reality it is the entire simulation that is the intervention).

    This embrace of an unclenching is not primarily a question of tools, techniques, or methods, though it will undoubtedly impact them all; it is a question of epistemology.

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