On Adaptive Ecologies

Over the weekend I finally got a chance to sit down with Theodore Spyropoulos‘s new book Adaptive Ecologies, which I’ve been looking forward to for a bit now. (Thanks, Steph!) Spyropolous is an instructor at London’s Architectural Association and director of the school’s Design Research Laboratory, and Adaptive Ecologies is his and his students’ attempt to push arguments about the computational generation of form a little further downfield.

The book’s subtitle says it all, sorta: “Correlated systems of living.” Broadly, the argument being made here is that new technologies allow us to fuse architecture’s formal qualities with its functional or performative ones. We can imagine the world populated with entirely new kinds of structures: each an active, adaptive mesh capable of responding to conditions of use, and expressing this response through its macroscopic physical manifestation, at every scale from unit (house) to cluster (building) to collective (megastructure or masterplan). What Spyropolous and his student-collaborators are trying to develop are the strategies or vocabularies one would use to devise structures like this.

Another way of putting things is to say that they’re attempting to link or join the two primary modes in which computation currently informs architecture. On one hand, we have the procedural, iterative, processor-intensive design techniques that have been in vogue for the past decade or so; on the other, we have the potential we’ve discussed so often here, that of networked informatics to endow structures and environments with the ability to sense and respond to varying conditions of occupancy, load or use. Adaptive Ecologies binds these threads together, and what results is a potent intellectual figure: smart city as architecture machine.

This is an intriguing argument, to say the least, and its evocation of urban space as a vast, active, living information system resonates profoundly with certain of my own concerns. Further, Spyropoulos admirably attempts to situate this work in its proper context, adducing a secret history in which his students’ towering blebs and polypy complexes recognizably descend from a lineage of minor heroes that includes Bucky Fuller, Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists, Gordon Pask and Cedric Price.

All of the usual tropes are present in Adaptive Ecologies: DLA and its manifestation in coral and Hele-Shaw cells; genetic algorithms, agent-based models and cellular automata; stigmergy and swarming logics; siphonophores and mangroves; even Frei Otto’s experiments with the self-organizing potential of wet thread.

But troublingly, these organic processes are used to generate designs that are not shown to be “adaptive” at all — at least not in the materials reproduced here. My primary beef with the book turns out to be the same I hold against the contemporary school of parametricists (which runs the entire gamut of seriousness, interest and credibility, from Zaha Hadid herself and her in-house ideologist Patrik Schumacher straight through to charlatans like Mitchell Joachim): that it fetishizes not merely form but the process of structuration. Or really, that it fetishizes the process of structuration to the detriment of usable form.

To make a fetish of these generative processes is to misunderstand their meaning, or to think that they are not already operating in our built environments. I promise you these algorithms of self-organization are always already there in the city — in the distribution of activities, in the dynamics of flow, in every last thing but the optical shape. The beehive’s form is epiphenomenal of its organizing logic, and so is the city’s. To reify such an organizing logic in the shape of a building strikes me as stumbling into a category error. Worse: as magical thinking, as though we’d made the rhizome an emblem of state to be carved in the façades of our buildings, where once we might have inscribed sheaves of wheat or birds of prey.

Consider the contribution of usual-suspect Makoto Sei Watanabe. Watanabe is an architect who believes that architecture must replace unreliable designerly inspiration with a Science valid in all times and places, and I’ve beaten up on him before. He’s represented here by a series of sculptures collectively called WEB FRAME, one version of which adorns the Iidabashi station of Tokyo’s Oedo subway line.

As is usual with Watanabe, he invokes “neural network[s], genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence” to explain the particular disposition of elements you can see in Iidabashi station. But WEB FRAME is best understood as an ornamental appliqué. It’s nicer to look at than a bare ceiling, arguably, but that’s all it is. Despite its creator’s rhetoric, its form at any given moment bears no relationship whatsoever to the flow of passengers through the subway system, the performative capacities of the station itself, or any potential regulation of either. It’s the outer sign of something, entirely detached from its substance. It adapts to nothing. It is, in a word, static.

Although it may be a particularly weak example, Watanabe’s work is marred by the same problems that afflict the more interesting work elsewhere in the volume:

- Not one of the projects illustrated uses parameters derived from real-time soundings to generate its form, even notionally. For some projects, the parameters used in an iterative design process appear to have been chosen specifically for the formal properties that result from their selection; for others, the seed values occupy an extremely wide range, producing a family of related design solutions rather than a single iconic form.

There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with either approach. But unless I’m missing something really basic, the whole point of this exercise is to devise structures whose properties change over relatively short spans of time (minutes to months) in response to changing conditions. In turn, that would seem to imply some way of coupling the parameters driving the structures’ form to one or another value extracted from their local environment. And while all of the student work featured in the book draws on the beguilingly stochastic processes of structuration I enumerated above, only one of them claims to have used data gathered in this way as its input or seed state.

This is Team Shampoo‘s exploration of “hair-optimi[z]ed detour networks,” and it’s both wildly problematic in its own right and emblematic of the worrisome tendencies that run throughout the volume. Shampoo’s design for a tower complex uses autonomous computational agents to simulate morning and evening pedestrian flows through a district, and in turn uses these to derive “optimal” linkages and points of attachment for circulation structures hardwired into the urban fabric itself. The results are certainly striking enough, but they are precisely optimized: that is, narrowly perfected for one use case, and one use case only.

Of course, we know that conditions of pedestrian flow change over the course of the week, over the seasons of the year, with economic cycles and the particular disposition of services and amenities reflected in the city. A conventional street grid, especially one with short blocks, is already more adaptive to changes in these circumstances than any lattice of walk-tubes in the sky, because it allows people to choose from a far wider variety of alternative paths from origin to destination. In designs like Shampoo’s, we’re still making the same blunder Jane Jacobs accused the High Modernists of making: mistaking the appearance of something for its reality.

And if the point of all this applied parametricism is to permit each building or cluster of buildings to take on the form appropriate to the exigencies of the moment, that I can tell, only a single one of the projects featured appears in states responding to multiple boundary conditions. This is Team CXN-Reaction’s Swarm effort, which proposes housing units that collapse flat when not occupied, stacked in a snaky concertina reaching to the sky. (Admittedly, it’s difficult to put a finger on any particular purpose sufficient to justify this tactic of expansion and contraction, unless they’re arguing that the long-term maintenance of an unused unit is significantly cheaper in the collapsed state, but it does at least show a system that is in principle capable of multiple configurations.) So while Adaptive Ecologies itself acknowledges three registers of iterative design — behavioral, self-organizational and morphogenetic — it appears to be only the latter that is given any serious consideration.

- More seriously, none of the structures featured appear to be provided with any actual mechanism that would permit dynamic adaptation. We can be generous, and assume that these structures are notionally equipped with the sensors, actuators and other infrastructural componentry necessary to the work of transformation — designed, perhaps, by students in other modules of the AA, or left up to hands-on experimental practices like The Living. But nowhere in these renderings is any such thing stipulated (again, that I could tell on a first reading), and that makes the whole outing little more than a formal exercise.

I suppose the feeling is that it’s far too early in the prehistory of adaptive architecture for such details, which would be bound to obsolesce rapidly in any event. But even where there is a specific mechanism identified — notably Team Architecta’s rubber joint, permitting 360-degree rotation and a variety of geometric configurations — it’s never explained how it could possibly function as a component of anything but a model. Is it supposed to work hydraulically? Pneumatically? Through shape-memory myoelectrics? And how is access for maintenance and upgrade supposed to be accomplished? (Scaling even a few panes of one of Chuck Hoberman’s expanding surfaces to room size, and keeping the installation working under conditions of daily use, required constant physical debugging.) It’s hard to imagine, say, Bucky Fuller settling for a sketch of one of his tensegrity structures, and not working questions like these out in detail.

- No attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with the way buildings are actually built. I am perfectly willing to believe that, at some point in the diiiiiistant future, self-powering, self-assembling, self-regulating structures will be “built” one molecule at a time. (At that point, the build/inhabit/maintain distinction would be meaningless, actually, as provisions for various kinds of shelter would presumably arise and subside as required.) But until and unless that point is reached, there will always be human fabricators, contractors and construction workers involved in the assembly of macroscale structures, and if what you intend to build is to be anything other than a one-off proof of concept, that means standardized processes at scale. Institutional and disciplinary conventions. Standard components. Generally-accepted practices and procedures. At no point do the structures described in Adaptive Ecologies coincide with any of these provisions of the contemporary praxis of production.

Again, yes: this is “just a design lab.” But where are these details to be worked out, if not in a design lab? Thousands of kids around the planet already know how to use Maya to crank out unbuildably biomorphic abstractions — functioning as a hinge between these “futuristic” visions and plans which might be realized is where the real discipline and the real inspiration now lie. (I won’t comment for now on the obvious irony that maintaining all of these structures as designed would require the most extraordinary specialist interventions in practice, taking them still further from the possibility that residents themselves could usefully modify or adapt them.)

- Finally, no attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with any actual practice of living. In a book stuffed full of the most extravagant imagery, one illustration in particular — the work of Danilo Arsic, Yoshimasa Hagiwara and Hala Sheikh’s Team Architecta — stands out for me as an indication that the discipline is speaking only to itself. It features the by-now-familiar typology of a high-rise service-and-circulation core studded with plug-in living pods, the units of which rather resemble mutant avian skulls. Put aside for a second the certainty that this Kikutake- or Archigram-style typology, first articulated in the late 1950s, would have enveloped the globe by now if there were anything remotely appealing or useful about it. What concerns me here is the frankly malevolent appearance of Architecta’s take on the trope (which just between you and me strikes me as kind of awesome, but which I cannot imagine being built in any city this side of Deadworld).

I know, I know: tastes change over time, just as they vary from place to place. Still, who wants to live in a structure that looks like nothing so much as a ravening gyre of supremely Angry Birds? Unless you can somehow convince me that you could gather enough devotees of True Norwegian Black Metal in one place to populate a shrieking kvlt arcology, I think this one’s an index of parametric design’s weirdly airless inwardness.

I get that this is an aesthetic of the age — “gigaflop Art Nouveau,” I called it a few years back. (1998, to be precise.) But as an aesthetic, it can and should stand on its own, without being married to an entirely separate discourse about responsive urbanism. As a casebook of purely formal studies and strategies, Adaptive Ecologies is by and large reasonably convincing, and here and there very much so. It’s all the rhetoric about biomimetic or physiomimetic processes of structuration somehow leading to more, rather than less, flexible assemblages that’s its weakest point, and unfortunately that’s the very trellis that Spyropolous has used to train his vines on. I welcome and applaud what he’s up to in Adaptive Ecologies, but as far as I can tell the attempt to devise a vocabulary of dynamic form that is capable of change over relatively short time scales still awaits its fundamental pattern language.

And if nothing else, it’s surreal to look up from this book and gaze out the window onto a city where SHoP’s towers are considered architecturally daring, and in which the overwhelmingly fundamental problem isn’t the timidity of its design but the inability to provide all residents with decent, affordable housing.

Henri Lefebvre once asked, “Could it be that the space of the finest cities came into being after the fashion of plants and flowers in a garden?” I myself happen to believe that this is true not merely of the finest cities, but of all cities: that they are given form by generative processes as organic as any of those so beloved of the parametricists, operating at a scale and subtlety beyond the ability of any merely optical apparatus to detect. It is when we finally learn to take the measure of those processes that we will stand ready to author truly adaptive ecologies.

One final note: it’s only fair to point out that much of the work on view in Adaptive Ecologies is on the order of eight years old, and that a great deal can change in that kind of time. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be held to every position I advanced in 2005.

2 responses to “On Adaptive Ecologies

  1. Hillel Schocken says :

    A “must read” for anyone infatuated with technology…

  2. Hannah Kops says :

    Great post! Thanks!

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