Generative Design

The future of CAD

Book Review: Programming Architecture

with 3 comments

By Paul Coates

Rare are the books on architecture that are written with deep interest and knowledge – without exuberance. Most, are now filled with glossy images and incomprehensible language that anesthetize our senses – to a point where we give up all attempts at comprehension. By so doing, we avoid for ourselves the embarrassment of old age, that sets us apart from our children who navigate the information world oblivious to the levels of stimulation that grate the very end of our nerves.

Thank fully, this book is in black and white.  Guess what ? You can actually read it.

It is of reasonable size with unimpressive pictures that neither grate nor stimulate us. It is factual. It has no ready answers. It seems to have been written because Paul Coates wanted to write it. Because, he has things to say and stories to tell. For those few who are interested in how the adding machines from their very inception help transform the game of design – it is delightful to read. I found it deeply engaging.

Paul Coates without doubt knows what is going on. He also knows what went on. He knows the stories and has taken the trouble to share their delightful details. Stuff that we are vaguely aware of . Stuff we will have to digg the archives for. Thankfully, he has chosen the stories wisely.  Burried in those stories are truths that may help us to better understand some of the issues in CAAD that we now face. He has skillfully dogged many well-known areas in design research that led to long blind alleys. Not because he is ignorant of the well-known names.  He has willfully, avoided pandering to successful practicing architects for their minor experiments in optimisation. I guess, he did not have to seek the permission to put their pictures in. The publisher here, has clearly failed in their duty to impress upon him that instead of those twisted snails he should have put a picture of twisted buildings. I had always thought that  Routledge was into selling books.

I have not met Paul, but I imagine him to be stubborn. Unlike many others (including myself) who see and want to see generative design as the in-thing, doing cool stuff and will do cooler stuff soon, he presents a somewhat sedated view. He betrays our enthusiasm. The book does not give the view that,

“programming architecture” is the in-thing.

In that sense, this book is disappointing.  For – it leaves us with the feeling that the way forward is yet to be charted. But it leaves us of the tales of travelers and descriptions of the places that they have gone. Its like reading Marco Polo’s travels of the orient, when the orient was a mystery in the minds of Europeans. It is about things that we are yet to fathom, about things that we have little understanding of. He leaves us with understanding of paths traveled and hints at viable ways forward.

So, I recommend this book unreservedly, but only for those who are interested in stories that accompany long journeys. From these stories, we may learn an important lesson – that the road we are on has had many turns.



Written by Sivam Krish

August 4, 2010 at 2:25 am

3 Responses

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  1. Paul is a great guy – I would even call him a master – in the sense of being able to share his wisdom about the filed of “computation & design” in a very down to earth but elaborative way, including his own history of engaging with the field. Truly, he has a hiStory to tell about this subject.

    My first contact with computation in architecture was during my studies at TU-Delft. Playing with sensor-driven-design, parametric-design and game-engine-design has sparked my quest to understand the nature of computation in architecture. I spent the following summer, 2004 interviewing teaching staff of schools in Europe and the US to get a glimpse behind their glossy publication work. During my interviews I mostly got overloaded with dirty-pictures, however every now and then the name “Coates” was mentioned. On my way home I made a last stop in London, at a school (UeL), not really known for its architecture department and hardly for its “Centre for Evolutionary Computing in Architecture” – CECA, but there he was, Paul Coates.
    I made an appointment and there he was; an old lovely man buried in his work preparing the new school year. I clearly remember; he keep on working and kind of ignored me, but pointed me to his poster for the course and said: “Young fellow, have a look at the poster and if you have any more question, think twice, but dont hesitate to ask.” The poster looked awful, but I read the notes and finally told him, that I want to understand what role the computer plays in his teaching. I finally got his attention and his agile witty mind started to tell THE STORY of computation with endlessly cross-referencing to other fields of research. In contrast to other schools he painted a world (not only a canvas), i was eager to explore. After 1.5 h Christian Derix who was co-teaching at this time joined and extended paul’s world with another dimension – of practice and design.

    In the following years, I completed his master-course in “Computing and Design” and stayed as a researcher to help developing VIPA – a virtual campus, based on Moodle. With the gained know-how I have then joined Foster and Partners’ Specialist Modeling Group – SMG. Currently I am finalizing my PhD in Computing & Design, an attempt to ease the communication between computation and practice.

    Computing can really change the way you perceive / understand the world around you and furthermore it helps you to add to it.

    … reading this book may help you to start an intense google-search. I would also recommend to check out his website ( and visit him at school.

    to everybody who contributes to this field of research – keep up the good stuff !


    August 13, 2010 at 7:34 am

    • Hi Stefan,

      Thanks for sharing your views and experience with the Paul. Unlike you, I had never heard of Paul Coates before I chanced upon his book. It surprised and delighted me. I have never written a book review in my life. But I was inspired to do so – to support the good work of people like Paul. I have great respect for his approach and trust the direction that the book is pointing towards. I think he has got it right. We need more Paul Coates.

      Sivam Krish

      August 14, 2010 at 2:25 am

  2. I joined CECA in 1996 and gained my diploma in architecture via Paul in 1998. 16 years later he and It still influence not only my attitude to design but life in general. Programming Architecture is CECA and CECA is Programming Architecture. I continue to think computationally from the knowledge in the book. I am now at Cambridge continuing to write about the seed Paul planted. Damn shame he isn’t here to ignore me. Go well and stay well Paul. The rest of you, just read what he left us. You might learn something.

    Martin West

    April 19, 2014 at 12:26 am

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