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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Urban Lobby

It's been a while since I've posted about something blobby -- for lack of a better term -- so when this "design research project on generative, computational form finding" by MRGD (pronounced emerged) landed in my inbox I couldn't resist.


Urban Lobby is the 2006 Architectural Association thesis project of Melike Altinisik (Turkey), Samer Chamoun (Lebanon) and Daniel Widrig (Germany). In it they investigate "the potential of fuzzy logic as a loose-fit organizational technique for developing intelligent, flexible and adaptive environments."


The project looks at the urban lobby as a contested and negotiated transient space, between public and private, work and home, transit and statis, etc. Interestingly, the team approaches their design by using an existing 1970s office tower (Centre Point) in London as the starting point for the new lobby, an apparent appendage that links the building to its context while infiltrating the existing at levels higher than the typical lobby's reach.


This sort of project is more about its process than its result. While images of the latter tend to be the focus in both print and online publications, the former should be stressed, as the form emerges from the process. While the description of the process on MRGD's web site is rather complex, the image below helps to explain one aspect of it: an investigation of the "self organizing behavior of the hair system." A number of variables were manipulated with a computer (of course) to derive images that could then be analyzed as potential formal processes for the lobby design.


It's well worth visiting the project web page to see the various animations and still images of the design's process and "final" form. It's a very thorough documentation of the project, aided in part by the computer's ability to generate images, but more so the team's drive towards generating "innovative works of architecture with an important urban, social and cultural effects."


While the project aims to break ground via the use of the computer in the design process, the team concludes by discussing beauty, specifically beauty vs. elegance. They say, "Both are quite different concepts. One is either beautiful or not. Technique comes to play its major role to transform what is considered not beautiful to beautiful similar to plastic surgery. It allows us to push towards beauty by producing elegance. Elegance is therefore achieved as kind of problem solving process, an ability to articulate complexity, and multiple agendas into a resolution."


Thanks to Daniel for bringing the project to my attention and supplying some images for this post.


  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the impression that this is predominantly an exercise in form generation. If it is, and if this reflects a branch in the future development of architecture, I see it as something that has a high potential of being misused as a way of promoting formally interesting, but otherwise very mediocre projects. I do not know if this way of using something like Generative Components is a positive development.

    Also, I cannot take a name like MRGD seriously. It's a little pompous.

  2. "While the description of the process on MRGD's web site is rather complex..."

    I would not characterize it as complex, it is rather obfuscated, but if you read-in carefully you will find, as I just did, that it just obscures the fact that they don't have a clue about what they're talking about.

    From the project's site:

    "Each of these material machines was devised so that through numerous interactions among its elements over a given time span, the machine restructures and finds form. Most of the machines consist of materials that can process forces by transformation. Since they are agents, it is essential that they have certain flexibility, a certain amount of freedom to act. It is also essential that this freedom is limited to a degree set by the structure of the machine itself. The wool thread machine was used to calculate the shape of city patterns, of cancellous bone structure but also of branching column systems. These are similar vectorized (sic) systems that economize on the number of paths, meaning they share geometry of merging and bifurcating."

    Does anyone here disagree with me when I say this whole paragraph amounts to zero information?

    These kids need to get it through their brains that playing with computers scripts someone else made, about which you do not understand the underlying mathematical theory does not entail developing generative architecture systems in any meaningful way.

    Perhaps some of them should quit architecture school and study computer science instead. You don't need to go to architecture school to be a first-rate architect. And that's a fact.

    On a related note:

    "Of Buildings, Computers and Telescopes"

  3. I guess one must ask if the final result could not have been generated via other means, though less in formal terms than in terms of the urban, social and cultural effects they embrace.

    It's one thing to, say, plug the location of certain subway lines, activities within the building, good pubs nearby, and so forth into an algorithm and see what the computer spits out (when overlaid with formal processes generated via studying hair manipulation -- for whatever reason -- in this case), and another to respond to the same conditions without the help of a computer.

    As I agree that the predominant means of using the computer these days is to generate new forms (ironically most of them kinda looking the same), here there seems to be an attempt to use the computer to find connections that impact not only form but the program (for lack of a more exact term, as the program of a lobby is rather imprecise), particularly via the complexity that the computer can muster.

    The way the lobby seems to stretch out from the building via numerous spaghetti-like strands into its context seems to be generated via a system of this sort. (I shouldn't say too much, as I'm from the old-fashioned pencil and parallel bar school.) But if part of the solution could not have been accomplished with non-CPU means -- while I can't say for sure -- I'd guess they could be, though in a different form, of course.

  4. I have little doubt that these forms could be generated by "non-CPU" means. Perhaps, the more pressing question would be, what advantage would "old-fashioned" pencil and parallel design bring into the table?

    I'm thinking about Alexander's [] ideas when I ask this. I genuinely wish to know what you guys think.

    Regarding the "sameness" of current computer generated form, I believe it is a reflection of the lack of sophistication of the wielders of the tools. On the other hand, I see a similar "sameness" between the work of the more salient exponents of the different non-computer-generated styles in history.

    I believe innovation in form is reaching a dead-end and is about to become a commodity that's better handled by a computer. Perhaps it's time to think about other intellectual pursuits, "higher-games", so to speak. To quote The Super Furry Animals: "Every building has been built".

    You tell me.

  5. I really don't see how any sort of functional program was used to derive the geometry of the product, and the number of iterations, as well as the somewhat arbitrary manipulation of certain parameters (where the hell did the 10m x 10m grid come from?), suggests to me that the solution arrived at could be arrived at by screwing around with any media subject to any sort of parameters.

    I would say that starting off the design path on a dynamics engine in Maya, of all things, is not a good idea. What work have they done to rule out the appropriateness of the dynamics engine of some other software, say Houdini, for this particular project? The particle-to-fluid-surface effect in Houdini's pretty damn cool, and is equally open to being screwed around with.

    I have to agree with Raphael. I really don't see this team from AA actually getting down and dirty with scripting language in order to develop a solver algorithm that is unique and totally appropriate to the contextual information.

    Projects in this vein only reaffirm my respect for architects like Glenn Murcutt. We all know what kind of dynamics engine he runs with.

  6. Just to correct myself. The 10m x 10m grid came from Centre Point. My question is how did they decide that grid is appropriate for the entire site and the context?

  7. i think you guys should take it easy. visually it's one of the most compelling projects i've recently seen on the web. who cares about the process anyways. architecture is about the result.

  8. I apologize. I get a little worked up when I see things like this. There was a poster put up at school promoting the AA grad program with an image of this project serving as the background. Upon reviewing what that project was about, I lost all interest in the AA.

    Being visually compelling isn't the end-all of architecture. It is only one aspect (visual) of one of the three tenets (delight) of architecture. What I was trying to say was that future, architecturally mediocre (in terms of function and suitability of the means and methods of construction) projects will increasingly resort to this flavour of form-generation technique in order to promote themselves as "high" architecture.

    Related news: Did you know that the Gehry is being sued by MIT for negligent design for the Stata Center? While it's visually very compelling, MIT is alleging that it has failed to serve its intended function.

  9. "What advantage would "old-fashioned" pencil and parallel design bring into the table?"

    Granted, I entered the profession post T-square, but there is something to be said about this form of drafting i.e. it is economical to build. For example, the 30-60-90 & 45 triangle is good to work with because these are angles simple enough for the builder to work with.

    MRGD's work may have been more relevant if they added variables like minimal surface areas, the path of the sun, minimum volumes for HVAC, an efficent lobby layout that sends people from the door to the interior of the space, etc.

    The idea of creating multipurpose space is an interesting one, but it is unlikely that the solution is the most efficient. The sections show a lot of concrete walls & odd angles. Usually, clients working w/ a budget don't have money for wasted space.

    It would be interesting to explore biomorphic design (which I think is what this is getting at) and whole buildings laid out this way w/ the computer designing it to preset variables. To play devil's advocate for a moment, humans are very adaptable creatures and are not so rigid. Making spaces ambiguous or at least their shells and then making adaptable pods would be an interesting exploration...

  10. It's not a good idea to waste useful anger on blobby buildings. It is good to keep in mind that there are many things that we call "architecture."
    Some people see it as "ways to make spaces." Others, particularly in the academic world, see architecture as a subcategory of drawing.

    That's fine!

  11. These buildings definitely are interesting!

    The word 'blobby' is just about right in describing them. LOL.

    In fact, that reminds me of an upcoming Karim Rashid talk entitled "Plastik Blobular Worlds". It's about how things in our world are getting softer, and well blobular!

    It's part of the upcoming Singapore Design Festival. You can find out mroe about Plastik Blobular Worlds at

  12. that's really nice. i don't even think it's blobby. just amazing


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