Generative Design

The future of CAD

Conversation with : Prof. John Frazer

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I vaguely remember reading his book which you may remember from the early days of computer aided design – for its blinking led lights in the cover, which was fairly weird then for a book on architecture.  It was a pleasure to hear him speak in the design conference in Nov. In such conferences are often presided by the established. Their views are known and  often, they have nothing new to say.

Then you have the cutting edge folks – whose presentations sound like teenagers discussing sex, “I did that this and that, and then…..”  listened intensively by an equality excitable audience ready to applaud the finale of  resulting in orgasmic geometric forms. Generative design, has sadly become the means through which such  geometric entertainment is now effortlessly created, leaving little room for restfulness or reflection, or any form of serious thinking for that matter. I wonder sometimes if the refusal to be easily aroused, is an “age thing”, being no longer a teenager and having to deal with them instead.

As thoughtless forms take over the screen and as I hear freshly spun design philosophies blurted out with the accompaniment of architectonic lullabies, it provided for me – the perfect time for a conference catnap, only to be woken up by Prof.Frazer. His lecture was delivered with the thumping energy of a British steam engine. You can see him live in an AA lecture. The things he had to say were of interest to me and perhaps I thought, to the readers of this blog. So I approached him after his lecture and kindly, he agreed to be interviewed.

I started with a carefully prepared set of questions starting with the evolution of CAD in which he had a hands-on role, for he started in days when the CRT screens were still only blinking and few lines and when erratic ink pumped plotters could hurt your hand.  But as the interview progressed I was hitting the limits of my ameture interviewing skills . I could not note down all what he was saying, not sure if he noticed that, but in the midst of it he said to my great relief “ I thought this was to be a conversation” and so it was, from then on. Here is what I learnt from it:

The story of CAD

While we may all remember the period of heroic architecture – when architects were the champions of modernity, re-shaping the world after World War II with radical thoughts and revolutionary designs. Computers one would imagine, would be their natural accomplice. It was apparently not so.

CAD as it emerged, was pushed on to architects – not initially wanted by them. It was thrust upon them, with the promise of relieving them of the tedium of drafting. It was only a promise. The reality was that it could not do most of what draftsmen could do effortlessly without going through 1000 pages of manuals at the expense of thousands of dollars. The early CAD companies need to be congratulated here, for flogging upon an unprepared profession an expensive dream that would take a few more decades to realize.

In this context, it was left to the CAD companies to develop the tools that their salesmen could sell – automated drafting systems – with the sole promise of saving labour (also the current marketing mantra for BIM). This is not to be condemned, but in it, a great opportunities were missed to structure CAD in intelligent ways, as suggested by some others at that time. Because, no one apparently wanted it that way. The visionary profession preferred an automated drawing boards.

Architects are boozos

He did not say exactly that, but the same, in better English.   “They are victims”  he said ” of their over estimation of their intellectual abilities” . Only British academics I thought to myself, can deliver insults with such accuracy and finesse.

Forget design technology Look at environmental issues, he said. “ How many architects were concerned about it till now ?” . People like Buckminster Fuller were not taken seriously when they hit upon critical issues in the 70s. So “Complacency with the use of computers” is a relatively minor issue within a greater malice – the erosion of intellectual rigor and lack of critical debate not only within the profession but also within academia.

He pointed out that unlike other industries, the building industry does not require much capital investment and therefore does not invest in research – guaranteeing for itself a high level of backwardness. But this is changing, as the funny forms now created in milliseconds require massive investments in terms of machinery to fabricate, resulting in the building industry becoming more of a manufacturing industry.

The missing generation

The birth of computers was accompanied by very divergent thinking. It was a time when everything was thought to be possible. The thought that computers can be used as creative tools, did occur to some. The fact that nature computes was also known. Both Alan Turing and Von Neumann both pioneering figures behind the development of computers, owe some of their inspiration to biological computational process. Yet, it seems that the great promise of computers as creative machines capable of assisting architects in tasks other than the most mundane – was mostly a subject of speculative debate, in which I guessed Prof.Frazer would have squandered much time.

There is a “missing generation” he said – that failed to yolk the great possibilities of computation to architectural design. He also pointed out, that since Buckminster Fuller there does not seem to be a techno-visionary architect using technology as a primary driver for design. There are no buildings that are a result of visionary computational thinking though we see a flood of forms enabled by design computation and advances in manufacturing and construction technologies.

For the lack of a metaphor

The biggest hurdle that plagued the history of CAD usage in architecture according to Prof.Frazer was the lack of an appropriate metaphor. The lack of a mental anchor for this new medium. Instead the metaphors of the desk(Autodesk), the drafting board, pencil marks (sketchup) and dustbins (Mac) where brought to the fore – to give the architects a sense of continuity and the assurance that nothing really has changed. This, he says, is continuing on to the new wave of change where scripting is replacing drawing with typing – without any underlying change, on how forms may be generated using computers. Buildings he said should be grown out a pack of seeds instead of being built with a bunch of bricks. The idea of growth I found to be central to his thinking but it’s an idea that has not also got off the grounds for decades now.

No real answers

I had a lot of respect for Prof.Frazer’s realization of the existence of potent natural design processes – in sharp contrasts to lead academics of his time who where obsessed with applying ancient ides of order on new possibilities brought about by computers. Prof.Frazer is by no means a cotton wooled academic. He is one of the earliest architectural code developers starting off in days when there were no computers or software to buy. Everything had to be built from scratch. He was also an entrepreneur credited for developing microprocessors based graphics. I had expected him to be less of an academic. I had expected him to be well on his way, cracking  key issues in taking natural design process out of the cauldron of academic publishing and into the real world. In this account, I was most disappointed. Despite a series of illustrious PhD students, this seems not to have happened. The reasons appear to be complex. His efforts seemed to be now aimed at influencing architectural design processes rather than re-inventing them as practical methods based on the philosophies of design evolved in nature. A personnel disappointment here, as I continue to think that it is possible to replicate natural design processes within contemporary CAD environments. Having studied some of this early work closely I realized the gap in translating cellular type of generated arrangement into complex architectural form particularly by Patrick Janssen his PhD student – without a clear explanation of the processes. An exceedingly difficult task, that would require in my opinion, some form of understanding of how things are put together – a possibility now made easier by the advent of BIM. Prof.Frazer too sees this possibility. But the bridge between cellular arrangements and built forms seems to be a bridge too far.

The limitations of nature

I was most surprised by his view on the limitations of natural design processes. And perhaps in this lies the most difficult dilemmas of computation design. He had well articulated views on this.

Nature he said “has no foresight. It does not know where it is going”  and therefore it’s not possible to introduce “design intentions”. Its inability to generate entirely novel solutions (without an evolutionary history) and its inability to pass on preferred traits he argued were serious limitations of natural design processes. Also in natural design processes every step (stages of development) has to be gone through and they have to work throughout those developmental stages.  You cannot also introduce Lamarckian strategies that would reinforce desirable behavior, nor could you affect embryogeny. You cannot pass back, knowledge or experience. You cannot do unnatural selection. You cannot interfere with the genetic makeup midstream. You can make the environment affect the genetic makeup in ways you can do with design processes. But Prof.Frazer went on to say that we could do all this with a new unnatural design process, based on the natural, but extending it to overcome these significant problems.

I found them to be valid and potent arguments against the replication of natural design processes. It’s perhaps the awareness of these issues that prevented progress that development of the new kinds of design processes that I would have like to have seen him propose. Despite my own views on the direct applicability of natural designs process being shaken by this conversion, I pressed on. I asked him why, despite the details of implementation why evolution has failed to make an impact on architectural design thinking.

The lack of critical thought

Prof.Frazer has been a lone voice challenged by both religious fundamentalists (creationists) and bio fundamentalists for making an unholy connection between design and biological design process. I believe that such views remain deeply unpopular with most designers whose minds like marbles would readily slider over the curved forms that they fashion, forging a very public alliances to nature while maintaining their enmity to and ignorance of natural design processes. After all, Charles Darwin figured out the basics of natural design processes a centuries ago.  Should we not at least be at that stage now – aware of a great design process, not knowing exactly how it works ? Not in architecture. The head start that they had in computational design seems to have been squandered. Computational scientists and engineers seems to have gone much further along these lines. Genetic algorithms, ant colony optimization algorithms along with a host of bio inspirited methods are now used in practice to resolve complex optimization issues. I guess the key difference in architectural academia is that nothing needs to be proven, making it possible to build self referential circles that grow and collapse in predictable order.

He also pointed out something else, that I was unaware of. While natural design processes where known for quite some time, developmental biology is of recent origin. Its only in the last 10~15 years he said that we have been able to understand how genes affect formation – which he points is critical; because, it holds the key for translating genetic information into life forms. A similar understanding is needed if we are to build forms out of computational seeds. Now that the computational mechanics of biological design process is better understood, the chances of developing workable methods are greater. He also regretted his failure in realizing the early impact of Dr.John Holland’s work in the seventies when genetic algorithms were first proposed.

I was wrong

What I admired most in talking to Prof.Frazer was the “I was wrong” part used in so many turns of our discussion, in sharp contrast to “ I am right the rest are wrong”  flavor of his lecture. He left me with the feeling frustrated with my attempt to trace the evolution of CAD – into a writable story. Its messier than I thought. Talking to him, I felt that the design world has been hit by a computational Tsunami with so many overlapping technical, social, professional and educational upheavals in which we are still sinking and swimming at the same time. It seemed that he knew in great detail, the mess we are in. He also had an admirable sense of direction but not the answers.

The great leap forward

It is hard not to notice a long standing bitterness when talking to Prof.Frazer. The failings of the architectural community as a whole in embracing computational methods seem to have created this. In his part, I noticed a greater failing to notice that this has radically changed. What he called “The Push nature of CAD”  has now changed.

Many of the new generation of architects can code. They are developing and sharing code – a welcome reversal that is empowering them to experiment and develop their worn ways of working and thinking. They are no longer looking at academia for direction. They seem to be developing for themselves skills that are needed for mastering new design process that are still emerging in the great evolutionary environment which is the internet – which seems not to be noticed by most academics and Prof.Frazer, as he made no reference to this in his lecture. But he did notice the intimacy that the new generation enjoy with their new found tools, which he himself relished in his early days when everything was possible and nothing was pre-built.

It was that intimacy that distinguished him from those who make a profession out of making theoretical propositions for the sole consumption of the academic world.  But in discussing its future, I sensed a great sense of optimism from this  veteran of computational design.

I must say here, that I have some rare respect for his passion and his conviction of the relevance of natural design processes to architectural design – which sadly’ he is still struggling to convince academia of 153 years after the publication of  ” the origin of species”, which pretty much unraveled natures design process despite its mechanics being not understood at that time. I wondered if he had squandered his life’s energy attempting to convince academia ? on the other hand, in his time, he would not have had a dogs chance in convincing  a backward looking profession; such are the dilemmas of a man well a head of his time.

The interview by now, had thankfully digressed into more interesting areas and had taken longer than planned. As I had not interviewed anyone in life, I was advised to end it with a question that would be of interest to my readers whom I discovered to be mostly PhD students. So,  I landed this one :

Interviewer : “ So what advise do you have for PhD students pursuing research in computational design ?”

Prof.J.Frazer : “Don’t do it”

Interviewer : “….hmmm……hmm….”

Prof.J.Frazer : “If you still want to do it, do it with me”

Thus ended a very interesting interview.


Written by Sivam Krish

January 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm

One Response

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  1. A great post! I am doing some research on breeding methods in architecture and came across your blog. Plenty of interesting write-ups. Loved this one with your thoughts running parallel 🙂


    February 9, 2012 at 11:54 am

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