In this essay I aim to use a computationally generative design approach to an architectural column designed by Michael Hansmeyer as a symbol of what may be a changing approach to a design practice. I will look at how this approach is being mirrored in other aspects of design and also in social and cultural development.
The practice of design is in constant flux. Design as a practice is about being at the forefront of human engagement – it is about efficient communication and confident interaction. The human condition, however, is not in constant flux, it has and will continue to stay the same for a very long time, and yet there will always be human involvement in the process of design. The next shift in design and the process of designing however is tending towards a lesser human involvement and hopefully to better design. Michael Hansmeyer is a designer which I feel fits into this category of new [lesser involved] designers.
Michael Hansmeyer is an architect and programmer who explores the use of algorithms and computation to generate architectural form (Hansymeyer, 2011). In his own words, describing the way that he works:
One no longer designs an object, but a process to generate objects.
Hansmeyer’s techniques are fundamentally quite simple, but in the context of architecture seem quite out of place, and thus confusing. So a short explanation will add some clarity.
Hansmeyer approaches a given problem the same way another architect would; there may be some kind of architectural object that needs to be constructed and space that needs filling (not to downplay the role of the architect at all). Rather than admitting himself to his personal aesthetic desires, or human reasoning to the problem at hand, Hansmeyer attempts to find a generative solution. He designs an algorithm which will iteratively grow according to it’s given constraints. The example I intend to use are the columns Hansmeyer designed for the Gwangju Design Biennale in 2011.
The input form contains data about the proportions of the the column’s shaft, capital, and supplemental base. It also contains information about its fluting and entasis.
The initial conditions are set in place, the idea is there, but it is up to the algorithm to do the making, and no-one can really say how that will look. The role that the designer played in this process is clearly very different to that of a ‘traditional’ designer. The Oxford dictionary describes a designer as ‘a person who plans the look or workings of something prior to it being made, by preparing drawings or plans’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2012) – i.e. someone who knows what the finished product will look, or how it will behave. My saying that does raise some problematic issues however – to what extent does Hansmeyer know how the finished article will look? Hansmeyer does have to describe a number of quite particular specifications before the computer can operate. A blank column is the starting point for his algorithmic creations — and he does design the algorithm to an extent, so must have an idea of how it will look, and thus the ego of the designer will begin to creep back in. But I did not intend to use Hansmeyer’s creations as a perfect example of generative design, but merely what it represents. This is not just a niche experiment inside the world of architecture, this is a fundamental shift in how one actually approaches a design process.
I have mentioned the ego. By taking the ego of the designer out of the design process, I mean questioning notions of the author. Authorship is a topic that has been widely debated by many well known theorists, from Michel Foucault to Levi Strauss. Foucault, in ‘What is an Author?’ quotes Samuel Beckett by saying “‘What does it matter who is speaking,’ someone said, ‘what does it matter who is speaking.’” The function of the author is not to become iconic through his or her work, but to admit himself to a mere transmitter of an idea to others. Levi Strauss understands when he said ‘I don’t have the feeling that I write my books, I have the feeling that my books get written through me’ (Wiseman, 2000). Using generative methods the intention is to take the ego of the iconic designer out of the design process, and it does not need to be computational. The increasing ubiquity of computers and the internet has led to better connectivity between people, and better person to person communication is leading to a greater culture of sharing and involvement.
Charles Leadbeater gives numerous examples of communal and collaborative efforts of sharing ideas and creativity in his book ‘We-Think’. Many of his examples are purely people working together towards the same goal with low-level hierarchy — this, although at its base level is not computational at all, is close to Hansmeyer’s method of designing. I will begin with an example from Leadbeater.
The name Wikipedia sends shivers down the spine of secondary school teachers and conjures notions of half-truths and suspicious pages. All this because ‘Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopaedia project operated by the Wikimedia Foundation and based on an openly editable model.’ (Wikipedia.com, 2013). All content on Wikipedia is user generated – those that wish to contribute what they feel is knowledge worth sharing, do so; and those that feel the information needs amending, do so. It is clear that there are major issues here if for what claims to be an encyclopaedia, there are admitted holes in it’s articles. However, the wonderful thing with Wikipedia is what happens, organically, over time. ‘From 31 articles in English in January 2001, Wikipedia had a year later amassed 17307, rising to almost a million in January 2006, and 1.5 million by 2007… The rate of growth in article in English between 2001 and 2007 was 5 million per cent, and for articles in all languages 19 million per cent’ (Leadbeater, 2009). Of course there is not a definite percentage of that which can be said to be completely trustworthy, but the sheer willingness of involvement is staggering. The community within the society which forms is just as impressive — Jimmy Wales, one of two co-founders with Larry Sanger (whom ultimately left as he disagreed with the total open access approach to Wikipedia), describes the self policing nature which forms in an open community:
Wiki software does encourage, but does not strictly require, extreme openness and decentralisation: openness since page changes are logged and publicly viewable and pages may be further changed by anyone; and decentralisation, because for work to be done, there is no need for a person or body to assign work, but rather, work can progress as and when people want to do it. (…) There is also an element of aristocracy: people who have been involved in the community longer, who have acquired a reputation have a higher standing in the community.
The Wikipedia team at its most is only 5 people. There is just too much work for a central team to govern and even survey what is going on, if a community did not form, then Wikipedia would fail. This much can be known before on the creation of such ambitious experiments like Wikipedia, but you simply will not know if that necessary ingredient will find it’s way into the system – that ingredient, in this example, is user participation. All the designers of such system can do, is design a framework – Wikipedia’s framework, unsurprisingly, is shared on the website. It is what they call the ‘five pillars’:
- Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia.
- Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
- Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute.
- Editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner.
- Wikipedia does not have firm rules.
What I am now proposing is that the five pillars that Wikipedia so successfully operates on, are not that dissimilar to the blank column which Hansmeyer designs before letting his algorithmic process take over (it just so happens, that they are both pillars). The similarities here are that the designers in both examples are not seeing the process through to the end, they are letting the design process continue under the influence of an outside, more organic source.
The success of Wikipedia cannot be measured on user involvement alone — the material is, undeniably, lacking in complete verification. But success can be measured in other ways: culturally and socially, for example. Wikipedia, ultimately, is an alternative to it’s costly counterpart The Encyclopaedia Britannica – which is verified and a trustworthy source of information, however:
…most people in the world cannot afford to compare Wikipedia with the Britannica… Wikipedia is creating a global, public platform of useful knowledge that will be freely available in any school, college or family in the world, in their own language. In Africa, even where communities do not have access to the internet, teachers are using copies of Wikipedia downloaded on CDs. Wikipedia may get the odd thing wrong, but that misses the bigger picture. Jimmy Wales and his community have created a new way for us to share knowledge and ideas at scale, en masse, across the world. Wikipedias message is: the more we share, the richer we are.
There are of course critics to this notion, and it does not always work as well as one would imagine. Not every initiative which entrusts sharing to the user ends in prosperity. Andrew Keen is one such critic, and he talks about Wikipedia in his book ‘Cult of the Amateur’:
Forbes recently reported, for example, a story of anonymous McDonald and Wal-Mart employees furtively using Wikipedia entries as a medium for deceptively spreading corporate propaganda. On the McDonald’s entry, a link to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation conveniently disappeared; on Wal-Mart’s somebody eliminated a line about underpaid employees making less than 20 percent of the 2 competition.
Recent examples show that freedom to roam an open network, connected to many people, can lead to corruption. The landing page of codr.cc now reads:
Because such a large amount of text could be shared anonymously, it was used to share identifying information, malware program coding, and spamming. One highly covered event was the distribution of 20,000 hotmail, a free e-mail web service, passwords were distributed via Pastebin.com. This event caused the owner to temporarily shut down the site to develop more filters to prevent this kind of event from happening again.
There are also numerous reports of how Facebook, Twitter and particularly Blackberry’s Messaging Service played roles in the London Riots of 2011. ‘Its encrypted messages give troublemakers an added benefit: Police aren’t able to immediately trace message traffic the way they can with regular cellphones.’ Due to the nature of a construct such as an open, but paid for, messaging service, it is not as easy to solve as the Pastebin incident above. ‘BlackBerry said it was cooperating with police, but shutting down the messaging system could penalise more than just the troublemakers. More than 45 million people use the BlackBerry messaging system worldwide.’ (HuffingtonPost.com, 2011).
What this critique is tending towards is the notion that designing a framework, whether for social engagement, computational or otherwise, which is too open can lead to negative usage. If people, the users, have complete control there is nothing to stop it being used in a bad way. However I believe this fundamental shift is of greater significance, and misuse of a given tool will happen regardless of the tool itself.
I have spoken of the human condition, early in this essay, and that it is something that I do not believe you or I will ever witness changing. The process of designing that I feel is the next progressive step and which requires people (designers and users alike) to admit themselves to a bigger picture; to succumb, as a cog in a mechanism, to just playing their role for the greater good (without trying to sound too dramatic). This is not an easy thing to do – after all, why do we all have icons we admire, and aspirations of recognition? However, I think to make use of other aspects of the human condition will let this happen by itself. Each person considers themselves individual, but, ‘paradoxically, individuality is a matter of crowd spirit and a demand enforced by a crowd’ (Baumant, 2005). To return to Wikipedia, it is not asking each of it’s contributors to admit themselves to the Wiki construct, but by giving every user the ability to create under his or her own name, they feel they maintain their individuality, while still getting lost in the crowd of millions of other ‘individuals’. Thomas Jefferson speaks quite gracefully of his opinion on the sharing of ideas:
That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature… Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.
To better understand this, it is perhaps easiest to take humans out of the equation altogether. This is perhaps entering a realm beyond the scope of this essay, but generative, organic design methods do begin to mirror that of the truly organic world. Nervous System is a studio which works in the field of generative design, although they do only produce decorative works.
Drawing inspiration from natural phenomena, we write computer programs based on processes and patterns found in nature and use those programs to create unique and affordable art, jewelry, and housewares.
The outcome of Nervous System’s deign approach aside, they do aim to mimic natural phenomena which in itself is an interesting thing. Mathematical analysis of nature has revealed some astounding patterns. Fibonacci published Liber Abaci and his famous mathematically defined integer sequence in 1202 which occurs consistently in nature (notably the spirals in pinecones and similar organic materials). As humans we have the capacity to understand natural systems which clearly work so well, and yet we feel the need to elevate ourselves above this system. To fully understand is to become a part of it, and start designing in our own way, the same way nature intended. As Wikipedia has shown, a system can work very well if the framework is strong, but also open and flexible, and has time and space to grow. Perhaps Beckett was right when he said ‘what does it matter who is speaking?’ and we should concern ourselves with what is actually being said.
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