Thursday, 30 April 2009

Ecology: Emergence in Form-making - Architecture and Biology

Where Architecture Meets Biology: An Interview with Detlef Mertins (2007)

All indented quotes are from the interview (except where specified otherwise).

One of the ideas that comes to the fore at that moment is that form is not an a priori; it's not predetermined. Form is seen as the result of a process. That opens the door to the question of what kind of processes and media or means are involved in the making of form."

This reminds me of Alfred North Whitehead's ideas presented in Process Philosophy, where strings of 'actual occasions' or momentary events cause the illusion of an 'object', which suggests that in fact, there is no objective reality. Actual occasions of micro-phenomena (sub-atomic particles, atoms, cells) collect and self-organize to form 'societies' - rocks, human beings, trees etc - thus giving the illusion of the physical and objective.

I wrote on my other blog about nominalisations, where I suggest a rejection of the noun - which is static and uncreative (left brained motivation); instead opting for turning everything into a process, a verb. Thus, the rock becomes rocking; the tree becomes treeing; the life becomes living. This opens one's options. A question may be asked in two ways - the closed sort which influences one into giving a nominalised answer:

"What is your name?"

... or the process equivalent:

"How is your name?" (abstract, change this into more correct english...)

The brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor was able to witness a complete de-nominalisation of her reality processing (Deleuze/Guattari would perhaps describe this as a process of deterritorialisation). She had a massive stroke which allowed for her to observe her brain faculties shut-down systematically and sequentially. The left brain functions of beliefs, identity, form, Chronos and ego disintegrated leaving the right brain functions intact: creativity, oneness, freedom, eternity, interconnectedness... the universe as an interconnected organism. Humans as parts that make up the organism - like the rock is a process of connecting together snippets of time and space/form.

Whitehead argues that “organism” is a better term for things that exist. Whereas matter is self-sustaining, externally related, valueless, passive, and without an intrinsic principle of motion; organisms are interdependent, internally and externally related, value-laden, active, and intrinsically active. link

So likewise, any form that is created by an organism should be ecological to the system. A form that adjusts to ever-changing environmental conditions. The form as an ecological organism.

I think Mies [van der Rohe] understood the building as an organism that is at work within its milieu or environment. Just as life forms evolve, so too do architecture and technology. For Mies, architecture needed to achieve a new harmony with its environment, because the environment had been changing in historical and material terms.
So architecture that is caring for its environment and inhabitants, buildings that maintain both themselves and their surroundings. As humans maintain both their internal processes and consciously respond to external stimuli, architecture may also step into the role of consciousness. We are beginning to see this type of behaviour inside the virtual world - web applications and browsers that respond to behavioural themes of users. The web is showing evidence of organism-like characteristics. Internet communities emerge with rules that no single person created, yet the rules appear to be ecologically sound.

It is the phantom space between forms that create the order. The imaginary lines that connect two points; a neuron fires another neuron which creates a thought string; two bodies that come together to reproduce and create other forces, a string of actual occasions. An evolution through cross-cultural and cross-matter interaction. A fresh and creative universal harmony; the biosphere realised.
[Austrian artist-designer Friedrich Kiesler] defines co-realism as the science of the exchange of relationships and forces, which emphasizes the dynamics of continual interaction between humanity and the environment, in which there is little or no distinction made between the natural and the technological.

Forms that are created through genetic engineering.

And he says we shouldn't imitate how nature constructs things; we should be developing what he calls biotechniques that allow us to influence life in a desired direction. For instance, he wants to move from the assembly of structures to continuous construction.

To move beyond the potential of human form and expression, to a cybernetic type thinking of form-making; a creative, synergistic evolution:
Kiesler wants to develop "the potential of specific actions contained in any nucleus of human physiology, resulting in entirely new functions sustained by inventions." This set of ideas still uses the ecological model of the human organism in its milieu, but now stresses the interactive, dynamic, and inventive dimension of that relationship. Interactions taking place in society, technology, art, every sphere of activity - this is a holistic notion of interactivity. Through interaction, it's possible for us to expand.

Lissitzky, 1924:
"Every form is the frozen instantaneous picture of a process. Thus a work is a stopping-place on the road of becoming and not the fixed goal."

Interactivity produces form:

Haeckel is the person who coined the discipline of ecology, as the study of the interrelationship between organisms and their environment. Organisms are also understood to be building their environments. They're making the environment while the environment is making them.

Crystals - Self-Ordering - not Self-Organizing (organisms)

Form (previously concrete, with defined outlines) - now (in modernism), form is seen as ambiguous, open; conditioned by the environment and interactions/relationships within that environment. In this sense, the modern understanding of form is philosophically contiguous to Animism.

The modern form is non-egoic; it is empathetic and responsive - concerned with ecology and context.

Sculpture doesn't have to have uses, at least not traditional sculpture, other than to inspire and amuse and provoke in its reception. The reception of architecture is in its occupation and performance as well as in its perception. The challenge is to put aside either-or thinking and develop habits of mind that are inclusive. I think interactive art has many lessons for architecture in this.

There's lot of potential, also, in integrating intelligence to make buildings that are responsive. At Penn, Ferda Kolatan is leading an effort to do that, as he has in his own work. All this is on top of the more effective engagement with uses and programming that we've talked about already.

Global warming demands that we take responsibility for other interactivities than we have talked about so far. There is no reason why more buildings can't be generators of energy, rather than just consumers. Why not integrate that goal into the next generation of generative models for design?

That's actually a good bridge into the question of urban dynamics - how architecture can contribute to the growth and development of cities and economies. In a lovely book by the late Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies (2000), she describes how economies grow, develop and expand using an ecosystems metaphor. She says it's helpful to think about how energy passes through ecosystems, what kind and how many transformations of energy and matter take place. In desert ecosystems, less happens than in well-developed forest ecosystems. In a desert or a parking lot, sunlight heats things up but doesn't get circulated much and basically disappears. In the forest, energy is circulated in a web of teeming, interdependent and interacting organisms, plants and animals. It's not just converted once but many times, combined and recombined, cycled and recycled, passed around from organism to organism. That's how diversity, intricacy and complexity develop. The flow of energy, she says, is "dilatory and digressive," leaving behind complex webs of life. It's worth thinking about how the design and making of buildings can enrich ecosystems -human as well as natural - by circulating and recirculating energy. Literally in terms of the energy they use or produce. If they produce energy, not only will this offset global warming, but that energy can be sent into the world to circulate more and in more productive ways.

It's time to radically expand the sphere of interactivity and effects that architects engage, to become serious and activist on that front. We need to develop inclusive habits of mind, to embrace the so-called real world, and work towards attaining multiple goals. There are many issues and resources that can be harnessed and brought together with experimental form-making; it's a tremendous horizon. Without bringing all that together, it seems to me that pure, disinterested experiments in form are inadequate to the tasks that face architects today.