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From Digital to Bio-Chemical Computation

In the context of the class, we have been focussing on the relations between literature and digital technologies. As my own work deal with bio or living architecture I thought I would post on digital architecture in order to articulate some relations it might share with living architecture. In fact, it is possible to make a direct connexion between the two. My readings on digital architecture (even though they are not exhaustive) have led me to understand that an important amount of the vocabulary used to qualify the new possibilities offered in the digital realm is issued from the biological one: variation, evolution, adaptation, mutation, etc. Various recent publications also foreground the relations between the digital and the biological: Greg Lynn’s Folds Bodies and Blobs, Lars Spuybroek’ Architecture of Variation, and Brian Massumi who has published extensively on architecture. Here I will focus on the Spuybroek and Massumi.

How to trigger change?

Digital Architecture and Dynamic Forms

Deleuze and Guattari, following Bergson, suggest that the virtual is the mode of reality implicated in the emergence of new potentials. In other words, its reality is the reality of change: the event. (…) Technology, while not constituting change in itself, can be a powerful conditioner of change, depending on its composition or how it integrates into the built environment.”1

In the context of my work, as I explained in my previous post, I am interested in the potential for change: the potential for technology to facilitate the reconfiguration of our social ecology of practices. Here I would like to see what changes digital architecture can trigger in the built environment. Lars Spuybroek’s most recent publication address that question through looking at the ways in which architects today are “resetting the tools for design and creating a language that integrate variation and complexity.”

The book he edited on the topic, The Architecture of Variation, contains an interview with architect Ali Rahim. At the beginning the interview Rahim argues for one should understand the use of digital technologies not in relations to the possibility of increasing efficiency (which for him is the way that was mainly foregrounded in architecture) but rather to (1) “further design innovation and producing proliferating cultural effects” and (2) increase the potential for collaboration and cross-fertilization between different areas (for example, as I discuss the the cross-fertilization between the digital and the biological).

According to him it seems like what digital technologies have brought to architectural practice is the possibility to integrate real-time feedback from the environment into the design process. In this perspective, he says, digital architecture reverse the traditional design process: instead of integrating a pre-conceived design into the environment, it integrates the environment into the design process. As explained by Brian Massumi “this is because the software put into use [are] evolutionary rather than representational2.” “Rather than using traditional CAD software, where basic geometrical forms are reproduced and then modified or rearranged, architects employed special effects software where you start by programming a set of modifications before you have an object to modify — a potential modification”3. This way of doing architecture negates the linear cause/effect model and insist rather on feedback loops. Hence, it seems that what digital technologies bring to architecture is the potential for generating a reflexive and symmetrical dialogue between the built form and the environment: to consider them as co-operating and co-evolving. Accordingly, it would be correct to say that digital technologies insist on the processual dimensions of form generation. In this perspective the digital hold the potential to negate hylomorphism (the imposition of a form over matter) and to insist instead on “formation,” e.g. on the form’s processual dimensions, on the dynamism of its generation and on its potential to vary over time.

In Spuybroek’s edited book on the Architecture of Variation, Manuel De Landa argues for something similar when he makes the difference between properties and capacities. For him capacities are relational and is in fact a capacity to affect and to be affected. Following Rahim and De Landa digital technologies are bringing up front the capacity for an affective design where the form affects the environment but can now also be affected by its environment (and that on the level of design and not only when the form is physically built).

The key point is that digital technologies offer evolutionary, variability and connectivity processes to design. The abstraction made possible by digital technologies is what makes these processes possible. As Massumi argues “architecture has always involved, as an integral part of its creative process, the production of abstract spaces from which concretizable forms are drawn” Now with digital technologies “the abstract space of design is populated by virtual forces of deformation” and, I insist of transformation. Although he adds that “he virtual is a mode of abstraction, the converse is not true. Abstraction is not necessarily virtual.” For architects, the question concerns the ways in which the abstraction process made possible by digital technologies (the virtual forces of deformation and transformation it entails) can operate on the level of the virtual, that is how the abstraction process can trigger deformation and transformation.

Smart/Responsive Buildings

I think that what digital technologies have realized so far in relation to “living architecture” is the creation of responsive buildings. Of course they have also helped with the production of buildings that exhibit living qualities (mainly on the level of the visual form). However my interest is not based on buildings that look like living entities (visual form) but rather buildings that behave like living entities. Responsive buildings is an example. Even though they don’t necessarily behave like living entities, for me they embody the first step towards the production of a real living architecture. I will here give an example that will show that these buildings can adapt themselves to their environment but that unlike living entities, they don’t have the capacity to evolve, to change over time. The new Arts and Engineering building at Concordia University in Montreal is considered a smart or responsive building. One of the problems I have, especially with the discourses surrounding smart or intelligent architecture is that they are mainly understood in terms of efficiency, something that Rahim pointed out in his interview. In this efficiency perspective, intelligent/smart buildings seem to be mainly associated with two main ideas (1) environment friendly and (2) sustainability. At Concordia they created the building in this perspective. For instance, they equipped the building with moving sensors that are related to the lighting of the building. When there is no movement, the lights shut down. This might sound smart, but it seems like the engineers did not integrated the social environment’s feedback into the design. Indeed they did not take into account the fact that sometimes scholars only read in their office and that as a consequence their movements are fairly limited. For instance you sometimes see scholars moving their hands above their head to get back the light in their office! It seems that responsive environments deal with the question of the “information required to get a complex response”4 and that the architects/engineers of this building did not integrate sufficient information (virtual forces) into their design process).

Even though Rahim argues that “designing with the virtual abolishes fixed types and programs. Rather than housing a static, predetermined arrangement of functions within an established representational envelope, formations develop uses in response to their occupants and context. These uses are connected to the form directly rather than through representation” it seems that this still remains on the discursive level as building today are still pre-programmed to a variety of uses and they don’t necessarily hold the potential to evolve once they are built, that is to catalyze new usages. The Concordia Building is one example.

Even though I agree with Rahim on the fact that we should not think design only on the level of efficiency, design must have an objective. It seems that most discourses that deal with the integration of living materials and processes inscribe their goals in relation to environmental development. In this perspective, Rachel Arstrmong argues that projects like the Concordia Arts and Engineering Building deals with the “conservation of energy: alternative energy sources, efficiency and recycling which buy us time by 
reducing the production of greenhouse gases but do not combat the 
fundamental causes of climate change. According to her “these designs can be impressive in their complexity and metaphorical sentiment” but they only help us gaining some time as fundamentally, she says “they change nothing.” I think it would be correct to say that they present initial steps towards the emergence of real reflexive and symetrical relation between the buildings and the environment without necessarily fully actualizing this relation.

Beyond Gravity

Here I would like to discuss the work of the Polish Architect Zbgniew Oksiuta. Oksiuta creates what he calls biological habitats: spaces with dynamic membranes. He argues that the construction of a spatial boundary between an inside and its environment is the most elementary task of architecture. He adds that “naturally, separating oneself from the environment, creating barrier and walls, is also a central human activity5”. His creations speculate on systems/environments whose dividing border between the inside and the outside is not a foreign body, but rather an immanent component. Oksiuta creates spaces of dynamic liminality, transformative instances, uncertain spaces, spaces that act as associated milieus, as milieus of association. The link between his practice and digital architecture concerns the fact that he grows his dynamic membranes under water in order bypass micro-gravity conditions. In fact, many forms generated by computer-based design cannot be built in the physical environment as they don’t respect micro-gravity conditions. Consequently, Oksiuta’s creations provide a term of passage: they can be seen as a current model -an extension or a prolongation- of what is being done in the digital realm. In addition, his practice aims more towards a living architecture as it is a form of liquid architecture and it was shown in science that life requires liquid to emerge. Following my readings on vital individuation it also seems that in order to be alive, a system must have a membrane, but also a space of interiority. I think that the problem with responsive buildings is that they only succeed at generating a membrane that is unfortunately freed from a space of interiority where the potential for evolution actually resides.

From Binary to Chemical Computation

The architect’s job is in a sense catalytic, no longer orchestrating. He or she is more a chemist (or perhaps alchemist) staging catalytic reactions in an abstract matter of variation, than a maestro pulling fully formed rabbits of genius from thin air with a masterful wave of the drafting pencil.”6

As I explained in my previous post, I recently developed an interest in protocell architecture. Protocells have not been fully designed in laboratories so far as nobody has been able to ensure their division/reproduction successfully. However the use of digital technologies is important in that field as scientist use simulation processes in their experiments. Computation is related to evolvability and programmability and can be extremely useful for the study of biological entities. Although it seems that the Turing machine and its related binary or digital code might not be of best used in the field of synthetic biology (the field in which scientists are concerned with the design of protocells). Rachel Armstrong notes that Ikegami argued that the only semantics we have so far is the one of the binary code and that it would be necessary in the long run to develop a “chemical computation” based on shape-shape relations rather than binary (which would mean the development of a shape-grammar). She says, following 
Ikegami, that “the semantics of chemical computing pose a significant obstacle 
to interpreting the results of chemical interactions since our current 
understanding of computer code is based on binary systems that are not
expressed in more complex, analog systems like chemical reactions.7” In this perspective, she adds that

Material computation is performed by molecules that are able to make 
decisions about their environment and which can respond to local cues in 
complex ways that result in a change of their fundamental form, function 
or appearance. Material computers are responsive to their environment and 
make decisions that result in physical outcomes like changes in form, 
growth and differentiation. These have already been demonstrated to take 
place in non-biological systems as early as the latter half of the 19th 
Century when life-like behaviours were reported from nonliving systems 
that were not based on cells or even cell extracts. There are many 
differences between material and digital computers but most arise as a 
consequence of the information in material computers being embodied in a 
molecular scale, physical system that possesses both mass and volume. The 
main advantage of material computers over digital computers is that these 
systems exhibit almost unlimited parallel processing power, which enables 
huge amounts of information to be processed and allows for multiple 
solutions to be found for any given problem. However, material computers 
are also limited by their physical embodiment, which slows down their huge 
powers of processing and contrasts dramatically with the instantaneous, 
massless computation that is characteristic of the digital domain.”8

This might be a very interesting analysis to produce on the semantic level, e.g. to look at the convergences and divergences between digital and chemical computing and to question how they could mutually influence each other. Although I think that we would first need a model to refer to that would help understanding how chemical computing differs form the Turing machine.

Lastly, I think that digital technologies offer very interesting tools for reflecting upon bioarchitecture but that the potential for generating a real bioarchitecture might in fact resides in pushing the limits of the digital realm to its extreme. I think that digital technologies can help to think how a bioarchitecture could emerge but that it might not be the digital realm that will ensure its actualization.

1 Massumi, B. (1998) Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible http://www.brianmassumi.com/textes/Sensing%20the%20Virtual.pdf

2 http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/Vol5_No2_massumi_markussen+birch.htm

3 Ibid.

4Kirschner, M. (2009) Variations in Evolutionary Biology in The Architecture of Variation p.30

5 Oksiuta, Z. (2008) Biological Habitat: Developing living Spaces in Sk-Interfaces: Exploring Borders – Creatin Membranes in Art, Technology and Society. Foundation for Arts and Creative Technologies/Liverpool University Press. p.134

6 Massumi, B. (1998) Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible http://www.brianmassumi.com/textes/Sensing%20the%20Virtual.pdf

7 http://grayanat.posterous.com/?tag=chemicalcomputing

8 Ibid.

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