Generative Design

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The Computational Con

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The more I get into discussions about computational design, the more I realize that it is a waste of time. It is a waste of time, because computational design is not something that academics of architects care to define yet insist on talking about. Not because they have time to waste, but because it is an important con. It is a con that is deeply rooted within the history of architecture, from the day emperors hired the porto-architects to fashion in stone representations of their cosmic connections.

The Mythology of Mathematics

Few would fail to see the mythology of mathematics embedded in architecture. Secret proportions, magic ratios and Sustras for cosmic orientation continue till today. Architects are burdened to carry such secret knowledge that can give their patrons an edge over others. A long long time a go, they did have a genuine edge in terms of their understanding of mathematics materials and construction. But those centuries have passed. The profession has greatly matured and diversified. Architects have  lost the intellectual edge – as know all’s. They are no longer at the cutting edge of science. But they desperately need to be seen at that edge. It is this pressure,  that has forced them to embrace the use of computers in design  and also to make its use mysterious –  giving rise to computational design.

But this too, just did not happen. Most architects detested CAD when it was first introduced. The big battles in the faculties of architecture in the 80’s was about “should we use computers in design” or not. The promoters were few, but they persisted and soon they became professors – just for saying that computers are good for design. They keep saying that, and that is about all they have to say. Because they have nothing to say – they invent langues and field in which they alone are masters.

Professors of Computational Design

This is not to say, that there weren’t those who genuinely saw the trasformative potential of computers in design. They were a few. They too unfortunately had to connived the faculties imbued in Greek mythology that computers can be used to give architectural grammar a boost. By doing so, then they opens the flood gates for the dullest and the most opportunistic of architectural academics.  Some even obtained professorships by connecting Chinese history with high-school quality animation. Conferences after conferences helped give each other credibility. Some academics prided themselves in publishing over 500 papers – that is more papers than one would visit the toilet in a year.  Yet, it hard to find a professor whose work in this area has had the slightest effect in the way buildings are designed. In sharp comparisons members of the faculties of mechanical engineering and computer science created a wealth of new possibilities on which our CAD systems are now based.

Cultural Capital

But there is another aspect of the profession best explained by Garry Stevens in his book “The Favored Circle” that finally clarified for me, why such a heavy load of theoretical nonsense enjoyed such credence. Garry explains that “Institutionalized Cultural Capital is constituted by academic qualifications and educational attainments, knowing things and being certified as knowing them” making it possible to conjure into existence make belief knowledge , that is only now beginning  to be questioned.Computational Design has become some sort of cultural capital of the field. Garry introduces the concept of “field” which may help understand the particular nature of this field.  He sates that ” as a conservator of societies cultural capital, the educational system of necessity changes slowly….” and this slowness arises ” from no particular defect in architectural training, but from the very structure of the field ”

The New Dynamic

While architectural academia is being increasingly forced to accept the paradigms of performance measurements and search for global ratings – it is most likely to intensify it current publication obsessions, while an entirely new world of knowledge structure is emerging in parallel. User communities around CAD companies, open source intransitives and the vast amount of education material is is now openly shared is creating significant amounts of new knowledge and skills without formal frame works. These have now pretty much overtaken universities as the primary creators of skills and knowledge in this area. It lacks however, methods of authentication and compilation of knowledge that university based knowledge systems provide. It will be interesting to observe how knowledge emerges withing this highly distributed network. And there is hope in it because it is live with activity driven by people who are passionate about what they do.


Written by Sivam Krish

April 18, 2013 at 11:52 pm

Posted in Architecture, Education

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.

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Written by Sivam Krish

January 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm

End of the road for the turbo-charged drawing board?

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We are now amidst an interesting change. The era of automating the drawing board seems to be drawing to a close. The architecture of today is increasingly difficult to draw with straight lines. There are many repeated components of various sizes. Fabrication companies are now able to crank out shapes that were not possible before. The cost of customisation is also continuously reducing. The virtues of a straight line – sung by the modernist architects inspired by an ancient geometric legend, seem to interest nobody. It has now lost its rationality and more importantly its appeal.

The rise of curvitecture

What’s interesting about design are trends. Because each trend destroys a previous trend and with it, the tools designed to author it. Curvitecture is primarily a result of a reaction to a Euclidean trend that swept the world – as the “modern movement” which imbued mass manufactured forms with aesthetic and rational qualities.  Its overwhelming success,  the mass confusion of what is considered bio and curved and overriding attention seeking the goal of architects has helped fuel trends that have now wrecked the Euclidean sense of Geometry. Its forms, rationality and aesthetic will soon be buried in architectural history.

Anything is possible now

Being creative is about moving to the edge – especially the edge that is being extended by new technology, engineering and manufacturing capabilities. Architects entertain the attention-deprived world by authoring unseen shapes of great complexity – which mostly do not relate to increase in performance despite their significant cost.Being and looking “bio” is certainly a justification that works because now being bio is being good and also being efficient. So there is a case for funny forms.

Why programs need to draw

It is impossible to draw a rat’s nest on AutoCAD. But it is possible to do so using programs that can handle the geometry of individual elements. Each element has common attributes that can easily be created by programs. Incidentally, we were built that way. We are a result of genetic constructional programs that told our cells how to and when to design themselves. Drafting board-inspired CAD packages are unable to handle the complexity of the kinds of shapes that are now being authored. A reassuring reaction is that only a small portion of the building are funny shaped and the bulk of what is built can still be drawn with a drafting board.

In the name of efficiency

The era of the turbo-charged drawing board is not to end too soon perhaps the way drawing boards themselves vanished from design practices. To prevent is pre-mature demise, a late but smart decision has been made to marry it to databases so that it can better handle the grunt work of design. This strategy seems to be working. BIM is breathing new life into old CAD. It is bringing obvious ways of working with computers (long obvious to companies like ArchiCAD) into mainstream use.The associated cost savings makes it an easy sell. The advantages are significant and architects are too busy either singing its praises or getting on board. But the age gap is catching up with them; because of the next generation designs very differently.

Cheap, smart, socially authored software

The design schools of today will give you a better glimpse of the future of CAD in architecture. They are now skewed towards scripting based tools – where designs are more transparently authored by programs. In the case of grasshopper, these programs are disguised as drag and drop boxes – giving late teenagers the thrill of connecting them with wires. The network around the grasshopper community is a global collaborative R&D team that is continuously developing new ways of authoring design. Many of them can program too.

The turbo-charged drawing boards, though now newly married to databases, and renamed  BIM certainly is a late stage marriage of significance to the those who are in mature practices, whose choice of CAD is skewed towards realizing designs. But those who wish to use CAD as a creative tool need to look elsewhere.

Written by Sivam Krish

July 28, 2011 at 10:03 am

Book Review : The Design of Design

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A heavenly perspective ?

The “Design of Design “ –  is a rare book on design. It is an attempt at a heavenly re-marriage, between the theory of design and the practice of design –  that have long been divorced on earth. There is still hope in heaven, as earthly boundaries and practices do not matter from such an elevated perspective. Wonder if you noticed the church in his cover ? May he be blessed.

From such heights he is allowed to discuss computer architecture and building architecture in same breath.

Design education does more harm than good

You may have met in the corridors of engineering department, professors who specialize in design. Their main mission and obsession is to take the “irrationality” out of design, often by developing processes and diagrams that engineers are happy to digest. It makes their world safe cosy and predictable. But not for Brooks…

One obvious injury of accepting the Rational Model is that we miss-educate our successors“.

Now, I wonder if academics could be accused of a greater crime?

They don’t like his book

It’s obvious why. They say, that he is saying nothing new. They are quite right. Prof.Brooks is saying nothing new. Nothing new at all. But what he says people are reading. His previous book : The Mythical Man Month: Essays on Software Engineering  – published in 1975 still sells 10,000 copies a year. Perhaps they find it useful ?

Academics on the other hand are paid to push the boundary of knowledge. But the problem of this academic pushing is that no one except themselves seems to know where they are pushing it. Only other academics are qualified to recognize that it is being pushed in the right direction.

But Fred has street cred

Fred fathered the field of computer architecture, well before most of us were born. His breath and depth of knowledge and experience in design is beyond doubt of great value to those who practice design. This book is a result of a life time of experience and reflection. In his own worlds…

“Its time for mature reaction”

His book is just that. It is indeed a mature reaction.  He brings to the fore the fallacy of rationalizing design. He puts the designer in the driving seat. Design he says, is about the designer and the process of design is best charted by designer who often has to fight tooth and nail to maintain what he calls “conceptual clarity” – which he vests with critical importance. He recognizes emergence (though he does not cal lit as such) playing a critical role in design. He emphasizes the obvious. That design is a co-evolutionary problem, where the problem and solutions need to co-evolve in a creative environment.

His examples in architecture are tepid. His house looks like a house, even thought is near the beach (and not like a skinned fish). Ghery would certainly not be impressed. He seems not be clued-in into the new developments in computational design – which are beginning to bear fruit. Perhaps he is still reacting to the older generation of academics who in vain attempted to bring rational process onto deign. But most importantly he is not saying anything new.

Prof Brooks has got most of the important things about design right

These important things are not new – because they are fundamental issues. Prof Brooks should be credited for bringing them out with such great clarity as a collection of essays that are easy to read. They are amongst the best writings on the theory of design – because he destroys the rest of them.

We now have less to read 🙂


Written by Sivam Krish

March 18, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Design by DLLs

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DLL stands for Dynamic-Link-Libraries; small pieces of code that can be called by programs operating within the windows operating system.

There are two types of  CAD

One is an ” all-inclusive ” offering .  All what we need is written into the CAD software so that nothing more is needed. The other approach is to provide just a graphic and 3D  data manipulation capabilities – an approach taken by programs such as Rhino. They are light and affordable. They come a with a large selection of DLL’s produced by active & passionate communities. These DLL’s achieve specific tasks for which they are authored. They achieve them exceeding well;  often better than the all-inclusive general purpose packages – an A la carte approach to CAD.

The advantages of the  all-inclusive approach is  often explained in marketing material that go with it. interestingly, marketing material is needed for such software – because in the old world of software development, you find out what the market needs, create code that can do it, test it,  package it well before its flogged. They also provide a number to call – if you have a problem with the software. They give you the feeling that you can  call the same number if the building you design with it falls over. But on the otehrhand, their pretense of comprehensiveness is somewhat real. They connect nicely to other analytical packages and do the things that they are supposed to do well – satisfying the needs of most design firms. But the creative lot are an unstable lot. They change their minds too often.

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Written by Sivam Krish

January 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Why cotton whoolers missed the bus

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Academics are a rare breed. They are often accused of being wrapped up in cotton wool – oblivious to the world around them – a condition was once thought to be necessary for achieving academic excellence. This may have been once true, but the business of academia has changed drastically in our life time. The most successful academics now put seasoned CEO’s to shame in terms of the conferences they attend and the publications (some times in the hundreds) that they are able to churn out. The many intelligent people who I know struggle with generating a single orignal idea in their entire life time.

Generative design has its origins clearly in the pre rat-race academic world, nurtured by  academics who had the capacity to dream up new possibilities well before they were possible. I like to divide them for discussion  into three important groups.

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Written by Sivam Krish

January 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Why spring chickens – hold the key

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I had refered to those in the university and just out of university, indulging in generative design in my previous blog article – as spring chicken; newly born chicks that are fresh, playful and inquisitive. But I have changed my mind. I wish not to call them spring chicken – because chicken cannot fly.

A  pair of pigeons that roost in our garage made me change my mind. The egg had just hatched. Sooner than I expected, there was a young chick sitting pretty in the nest. It was fed continuously by its loving parents and it just grew and grew. But it spent most of its time preening and grooming itself. Occasionally it would strut across the ledge, but made no attempt to fly.

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Written by Sivam Krish

December 26, 2010 at 3:32 am

Posted in adoption, Education