THE TOPOLOGICAL DESIGN PROCESS

Luis Eduardo Boza, Assistant Professor, The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning

Matthew Geiss, Visiting Assistant Professor, The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning

Click here to be directed to the gallery for the “House for an Ecologist” project described in the following paper.

 

Abstract

The architectural design process can no longer be viewed in iso­lation as a linear/repetitive process. Stagnation is a corollary of the generic format which leads designers from schematic design through construction (and on to the next project). This point is re­iterated by Sanford Kwinter in ‘Landscapes of Change’ where he states that “A linear model is one in which the state of a system at a given moment can be expressed in the very same terms as any of its earlier or later states.”[1] In other words, linear models are not simply reversible and repetitive, but predictable.

As suggested by the co-authors in their project ‘A House for an Ecologist’, architec­ture is afforded immeasurable opportunity through the employment of a topological design process that utilizes advanced digital design and fabrication technologies. This paper will seek to understand the necessary oscillation between the real and the imagined, between the natural and the artificial, and between existing paradigms and innovation, that will enable designers today and in the future to move far beyond the pre­conceptions inherent in our current built environment.

 

1          Introduction

Historically speaking, the profession of architecture has evolved at a much slower rate than any other design industry. Architecture, unlike many of the other design disciplines must take into account a plethora of information within the interwoven fabric of  politics, sociologies, cultures and economies, while also navigating the complexities of existing and developing technologies, the logics of structure, the increasing implementation of material sciences and the ever present notion of aesthetics. The immense scale and the “one-off” nature of buildings often suppresses true innovation (which feeds development) and in most cases relies on those items previously developed, tested and proven in other industries where such restrictions may not have been present. The question that must be asked is why has architecture been allowed to lag so far behind? How can the architectural design process itself respond in such a way as to cultivate invention and innovation in architecture today?

We need only to draw parallels with in­dustries other than architecture such as automotive engineering, aeronautical engineering, or product design to see how apparently stagnant, uninspired, unresponsive and uncreative our architecture has become. In the automotive and aerospace design industries paradigm shifts have occurred in the production processes several times over throughout their histories; each with significant improvements in the quality and performance of their products.[2] Their industries morph, develop and never remain stagnant.

Conversely, the architectural industry (and the construction industry for that matter) is “stuck” in a hierarchical process where the process of design and construction is dependant on a linear, hierarchical development. [3] In this mode, innovation/invention is stifled as it depends on the rejection of pre-established models and iterative cycles of directed evaluations to form a knowledge generating-process.

In response, the profession of architecture has tried to compensate for its shortcomings by mistakenly focusing the theory of architecture, rather than the practice of architecture. David Leatherbarrow argues that in the past architects have “viewed buildings as objects that result from design and construction techniques, rather than as objects that represent various practices and ideas.”  He argues for a fundamental shift from what the building is to what it does; in effect the first being defined by means of the second. [4]

Reiterating this shift, the 2005 Pritzker Prize winner, Thom Mayne, in his remarks at the 2005 AIA Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada began his presentation with a challenge to architects and consultants by saying “You need to prepare yourself for a profession that you’re not going to recognize a decade from now, that the next generation is going to occupy.”[5]  As we anticipate the future, this challenge forces us to rethink all architectural activities by exploring new strategies and continuously questioning our intentions in order to redefine how we confront the realities of our global cultures, economies, and our responsibility to the environments in which we operate.

As architects, one of our responsibilities (and values) includes the addition of a technological imagination, an aesthetic eye and a place-making ability to the collaborative efforts necessary in the design of buildings.[6] In addition, we have traditionally been responsible for the integration of the many specialized disciplines necessary to realize architecture. However today, many architects still remain comfortably situated at their location within the “assembly line” of the design where the linear process leads step by step toward increasingly banal architecture. This stagnation of the design and construction industry is anything but allowing us to prepare for the inevitable change our industry has long predicted. The time has come for the re-interpretation of ‘the architect’ and the field of architecture as a whole.

2          The Topological Design Process

It has been said that architecture is a dangerous profession.[7] It is dangerous in that not only does it ask us to rethink our approaches and norms for each design project, but because the norms, or the substances that we are taught to react to (i.e. materials, methods, economies, technologies, politics, etc), are in constant flux. Not only are we to react to what is has been predetermined, but it is required that we react to a moving target which changes, and evolves as it is being considered.  As designers, we face a constant barrage of information, an inundation of stimuli, that we must sort through as we carry out our responsibilities as professionals.

In Sanford Kwinter’s article “Flying the Bullet, or when did the Future Begin?” he uses the analogy of aerial combat and its multidimensional space as a comparison to the design process. He states,

Nowhere is the necessity of opening oneself up, and remaining attuned, to a multiplicity of dimensions more critical than in the world of aerial combat… Naval maneuvers, for all their elegance and complexity, lack a priori dimensional constraints that strongly condition aerial ones… Although in maritime milieu one must account not only for the positions of enemy ships, their relation to land and nearby fleets, supply times and routes, but for wind and water currents as well, the entire choreography plays itself out on a single surface, in only two dimensions of space… Combat in the air of course, takes place fully in three spatial dimensions, and immobility does not figure as an option – one chooses simply to engage the enemy or not. Aerial warfare has its own specific features, of which speed, or total fluidity, is the primary one.[8]

Chuck Yeager, the accomplished test pilot who first broke the sound barrier has added,

To survive, you’ve got to fly an airplane close to the ragged edge where you’ve got to keep it if you really want to make the machine talk… One must know where the outside of the envelope is… know about the part where you reach the outside and then stretch her a little…. without breaking through.

Kwinter goes on to equate the responsibility of the architect to the challenge confronted by the aerial dogfight pilot by stating that both must,

exploit the discrepancies that appear between parallel flows… Theses flows are so far from equilibrium – so stretched – that the critical discrepancies must be snatched from any dimension that is not already strained to the max… Never become predictable, explode into all four dimensions at once.[9]

For the architect, Kwinter proposes that this means the he/she must “take (their) focus to infinity, not linger on objects but enter the space tactilely” As the pilot must scan the skies for the enemy while maintaining flight, the architect must be in search of continuing developments during the design process, in search of changes and fluctuations, then respond to them as if they were part of the cycle all along, as Kwinter points out, “the translation from one into the other is simultaneous.”[10] Reactions and responses become fluid and under constant transformation.

In mathematics, this premise is referred to as topology. Topology is “the branch of mathematics that studies the properties of geometric figures generated under constant transformations.” [11] Topology studies the properties of an object, and all of its conceivable forms; abstract or multi-dimensional and their continuities. Topology treats the change or evolution of forms and objects as essential characteristics of their inherent understanding and classification.

The study of “continuous or fluid transformations” is relevant in other fields as well, such as in the study of early childhood development. During the topological phase (birth to 4-5 years old) a child begins to understand and appreciate shapes and becomes aware of his or her surroundings. This knowledge is developed as he/she begins to make relationships between themselves and their environment. The understanding of space is developed through a continuous interaction with their surroundings. Through the senses: crawling on the floor, touching objects, smelling them, tasting them, etc. a subjective perception is fostered, ultimately developing their knowledge base. [12]

Likewise, the notion of the topological design process is based on the premise that a knowledge base is built and is in continuous alteration through an incessant response to the forces which are presented during the design process.  Immobility (or stagnation) is not an option. As the process unfolds, a proposal evolves and opportunities emerge at critical points, fostering a collaborative environment where innovations can occur. Interaction and engagement with the process should not become merely reactive but should encourage a proactive response as well. Prodding or poking the process along is encouraged. Adjusting the tempo, the focus, and the direction of the inquiry allows for new reactions to take place, potentially bringing forth innovative and unexpected results.

As architecture continues to expand in scope and complexity, designers must continue to use the tools and technologies avail­able to them in order to understand the significance of their interventions. Today, generating valuable feedback loops are more possible than ever before through the use of advanced computational software (including 4d virtual and building information modeling), and collaborative / integrated practices afforded by a global virtual community. These “loops” need not occur only through virtual information exchanges but can also be aided by the ability to fabricate ideas physically utilizing computer numerical controlled machineries and full scale constructions. More than ever before, we are now able to integrate the direct knowledge gained from the physicality of the design process with our ability to evaluate a design through touch, smell, sound, and sure, why not taste as well. The input/output nature of the topological design process eliminates the outdated concept of a strictly representational design process. This new design model is not pre­scriptive or predictable like the old linear one; it opens doors to a multitude of previously inconceivable futures.

3          House for an Ecologist

In May of 2005, The AIA Committee on Design, together with the AIA Committee on the Environment, and in conjunction with the AIA conference, “The Architecture of Sustainability,” sponsored a design ideas competition titled, “A House for An Ecologist”. The program was a fictitious live/work dwelling for an Ecologist in Residence at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). The dwelling was to include the Resident’s personal quarters (living, sleeping for one, eating for four, bathing, and study for one), as well as a meeting area for up to eight people, including colleagues and guests. The area of the enclosed structure was not to exceed 1,500 square feet. The challenge posed to professional architects and students was to question how environmental innovation can contribute directly to design excellence.

Considering that the issue of sustainability has become a central issue in architectural discourse today, we may be surprised when we realize that its definitions and goals have become less clear. As architects our responsibility towards the environment has translated into the “tag phrase” of sustainable design. Yet this term provides us no further clarification. Most architects practicing today equate “sustainable design” with “high performance buildings” and have seen it as a purely technical or ethical agenda, choosing to focus primarily on the science of building technologies.[13] In most cases, the technical decisions do not fall into the realm of the architect’s knowledge base, ultimately forcing them to rely on the expertise of others. However, if not carefully coordinated, this expertise (which is extremely valuable in its own right) may begin to drive a project, slowly pushing the architect aside; often minimizing his involvement to the point where his participation may not be necessary.

Consequently, the notion of integration / collaboration must be considered in relation to the topic of sustainability. The method of design (know-how) is just as, if not more critical than the built form itself (know-what). All decisions are a subsequent result of the designed design process; aesthetic, means, methods, time, cost, etc. Current architectural design processes tend to stratify the components necessary for the design and production of buildings which result in each group segregating themselves from one another. Collaboration and the integration of ideas are kept at a bare minimum. The outcome is one where designers and consultants and other collaborators are isolated from one another sharing no collective intelligence.[14] In most cases, the lack of communication between players involved in the design process is physically reflected in the lack of communication between the architectural concept, the building systems (infrastructure and materials), the context, and the project delivery systems (fabrication / assembly / construction). Ultimately, our profession’s inability and unwillingness to collaborate with others to integrate new bases of knowledge is destined to produce an architecture which is grossly over budget, delivered late, performs poorly, destroys the environment, and leaves its occupants uninspired about their built environment and its future use.

The architectural design profession continues to alienate itself, choosing to remain well within its comfort zone. However, like Kwinter’s description of the dogfight pilot, today’s society (and profession) is defined by a constant barrage of ubiquitous information that simultaneously connects us to, and removes us from, the world in which we live. Unfortunately, this has made us a detached society (and profession); detached from each other and from our surroundings. The result is a sea of floating “signifiers”; isolated from one another, where the whole has become a fragmented version of its incongruous parts.

The co-authors submission, titled “Architecture as Interface: A House for an Ecologist” proposed the study of ecology as being based in the fundamental relationships between organisms and their environments. More specifically, the authors consider the study of ecology as concerning itself primarily with the relationship of human groups and their physical and social environments. Given this definition, it has became the authors’ contention, that only through a rigorous topological design process can an Architecture be created in which the whole extends seamlessly beyond the sum of its parts and where a sustainable aesthetic can be developed out of environmental innovation and responsibility.

The proposal sought to reestablish a connection between man and his/her surroundings, between architecture and the environment, between the ecologist and his/her work. Through questioning existing paradigms and inverting or inflecting them, the authors were able to discover / unearth compelling relationships. The proposal navigated a liminal zone between innovation and environmental integrity / performance, between structure and infrastructure, between project delivery and integrative design, between assembly and fabrication processes, between traditional tectonics and bio-mimetic materials. In this merge of ecosystems and performative architectural forms, both nature and culture have been cautiously preserved.

Rather than clear a pristine plot to create a foundation, the building hovers above the ground, integrating itself into the site, allowing rain, wind, snow and trees to penetrate it. Rather than orienting the building’s facades toward North, South, East or West, the perforated voids within the building’s mass become the primary exterior envelope, thus becoming an unexpected mediator between interior and exterior. Rather than consider the structure as an element solely responsible for distributing loads, the weightless, lattice-like structural mesh also performs as the dwelling’s primary infra-structural distribution (water, power, lighting) system. Rather than dividing the interior space into programmatic requirements and focusing one’s gaze outward toward the landscape, spaces flow seamlessly into one another, generating a contemplative space inwardly focused on the natural external elements, framed by the voids within the dwelling. Performative on many levels, ultimately, the architecture itself becomes the medium through which the study of relationships between organisms and their environments is fostered.

4    Conclusions

The design strategy employed by the co-authors in their project ‘A House for an Ecologist’ exemplifies the paradigm shift from the linear process of design to a topological one. More accurately, it could be interpreted as a kind of psychogenetic fugue, in which the initial actions are deliberate and precise but remain flexible enough to morph into parallel modes of exploration. The design process becomes a repetitive feedback loop wherein form gen­erates structure, which is a derivative of assembly, which then informs materiality. Additionally, infrastructural considerations, in combination with an in depth analysis of program, may lead to a revision of form and so on.

One of the most interesting aspects of far from equilibrium systems are their ability to self organize. The system may gain or lose energy resulting in an outcome which is not specifically predictable, but through the generation of feedback loops, the system can use the ‘knowledge’ of its initial states to propel itself toward a previously unforeseen future. The field of architecture, like the multitude of parallel design fields which have passed it by, cannot continue to operate as a closed system. The topological design approach forces the designer to continuously question each and every decision, pushing the design process farther from equilibrium and away from the banality of traditional linear design methodologies. The flows of new technologies, environmental sensitivity, and innovations from outside disciplines must be incorporated through the topological design process to propel the field of architecture toward a yet to be determined future, before it simply regresses into the past.

 

References

[1] Sanford Kwinter, “Landscapes of Change: Boccioni’s Stati d’amino as a General Theory Of Models”, Assemblage 19, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1992.

[2] Stephen Kieran, James Timberlake,  Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies are Poised to Transform Building Construction, McGraw Hill Inc., NY,  2004, p 85.

[3]  Ibid.

[4] David Leatherbarrow, Architecture’s Unscripted Performance, “Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality”, Branko Kolarevice, Ali Malkawi, editiors, Spon Press, NY, 2005, p 7

[5] Thom Mayne, FAIA, “Change or Perish”, Report on Integrated Practice, American Institute of Architects,  Washington DC.

[6] Barbara Allen, “Rethinking Architectural Technology: History, Theory, and Practice,” Journal of Architectural Education, February 2001, 54/2, 142

[7] Rem Koolhaas, Rem Koolhaas: Conversations with Students, Architecture at Rice, 30, Second Edition, Princeton Architectural Press, NY, p 12.

[8] Sanford Kwinter, “Flying the Bullet; or When Did the Future Begin?”, Architecture at Rice, 30, Second Edition, Princeton Architectural Press, NY, p 3-74.

[9] Ibid., 79.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Miriam-Webster Dictionary viewed August 4, 2006. http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/topology

[12] Manuel Gausa, Metapolis Dictionary of Advance Architecture, Actar, Barcelona, Spain  p 629.

[13] Lance Hosey, “Toward a Humane Environment: Sustainable Design and Social Justice”, AIA Committee on the Environment, America Institute of Architects`, viewed August 4, 2006, http://www.aia.org/cote/cote_default.

[14] Stephen Kieran, James Timberlake,  Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies are Poised to Transform Building Construction, McGraw Hill Inc., NY,  2004, p 7.