Smart Geometry Conference 2009

Jul 13, 2009
  • Article by Maitiú Ward

If you were to believe the critics, those who gathered together beneath the lofty, gilt edged ceilings of the San Francisco Palace Hotel last April make up the key proponents of a new architectural ideology of algorithmic abstraction and wilful form-making, all of whom share an almost cult-like belief in the transformative power of the digital. The event? The annual gathering of the Smart Geometry Group, an organisation established in 2001 to explore the potential of computation and the computer as an intelligent aid to design in the built environment, with a particular emphasis on what has come to be known as parametric design.

The aspersion of course is unwarranted, although having spent several days in attendance at the conference, I can see why those involved in the field of parametrics have developed a somewhat cult-like reputation – the attendees speak a language that would be entirely unfamiliar to most laypeople, and even most architects, peppered as it is with references to scripting, algorithms and esoteric geometric formulae. The conference itself is actually the culmination of nearly a week of workshops and training focused around parametric digital design tools, primarily Bentley Systems’ Generative Components (Bentley Systems are the major sponsor of the group, and use the conference and the Group itself as something of a testing ground for their parametric tool), and the limited places available at the workshops are hotly contested for by specialists from around the world, students and practitioners both. The resultant attendees could be described as leaders in their field, and the conference is undeniably a gathering of brilliant minds – while others whiled away their teenage years playing video games, these people were the kids busy designing them.

Likewise, it wasn’t difficult to detect a definite hint of idealism in the rhetoric surrounding the conference, but while the language of “performance” and “optimisation” was fairly commonplace, it was also noticeably absent from several of the presentations. So too was the self-indulgence epitomised by the “shapely highrises” (as RMIT’s Mark Burry wryly described them) so often conflated with parametric design and digital architecture. If the Smart Geometry Group could be accused of being somewhat zealous proponents of the digital, the sentiment behind the formation of both the group and the conference itself is in some respects a remarkably selfless and altruistic one. The group was established by its founding directors Lars Hesselgren of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, J Parrish of Arup Sport and Hugh Whitehead of Foster + Partners as what was essentially intended to be a forum for the exchange of knowledge and ideas around digital design methodologies. Perhaps as a result of this, egos seemed to take a back seat in the presentations to ideas and problem solving.

This was certainly not your typical architectural show and tell, wherein beautifully realised and impossibly rarefied architectural objects are presented for bragging rights and adulation. Projects that were presented were done so overwhelmingly to illustrate the discovery of some new methodology or process, or perhaps a unique application of a digital design tool not previously explored. The emphasis, then, seemed to be overwhelmingly on systems, so to speak, rather than the architectural object, or indeed the designer themselves. In fact it was the altogether much more selfless concept of collaboration that was the recurring theme throughout many of the conference presentations. The Architectural Association’s Brett Steele based his entire address around the idea of the network based design studio, and how digital technologies were accentuating the importance of the team to the design process. Indeed, as Steele described in an interview with AR (see over), the network has become such a dominant paradigm that he believes it is ironically in danger of becoming reified as a “new kind of object of architectural fascination”. Certainly, Foster + Partners’ Martha Tsigkari did nothing to dispel this latent potential in her presentation, in which she described the building of design information systems as the new architectonics. Using her own role at Foster + Partners as an example, Tsigkari outlined what she saw as the burgeoning growth of a new kind of architect who was both scripter, development manager and a creator of integral systems – ultimately a “chef”, the one individual in the team with sufficient oversight across the entire process to be able to coordinate the increasingly complex and multifarious components of the average architectural project into a successful design.

One of the great strengths of parametric software tools such as GC is their potential for multidisciplinary application – the conference is something of a multidisciplinary affair itself, with representation from architects, mechanical and structural engineers and, to a lesser extent, software developers. The Smart Geometry Group draws its membership from among both the architectural and engineering fraternities, and much of the conference was devoted to exploring how the collaborative potential of these relationships could be managed better within the design process, or how greater input from all of the stakeholders and key contributors to a design could be facilitated earlier on. Steve Sanderson of CASE Inc (formerly of the architectural practice ShoP) saw the potential of the technology as specifically related to what he described as this “Co” paradigm of “computation, co-generation and collaboration”.

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A relative newcomer to the Smart Geometry Group, Sanderson has nonetheless been a vocal critic of what he sees as its overemphasis on abstract geometrical formulations as a means of achieving better “performing” buildings, at the expense of the much messier, but often times much more effective, method of managing client and stakeholder relationships. Inspired by the digital social networking models of Web 2.0, as Sanderson saw it for the profession and the building industry to evolve it needs to embrace what he described as “Building 2.0”, whereby the important role that stakeholder communication has in the design process is recognised.

Sanderson was not alone in sounding a cautionary note – the Pratt Institute’s Kyle Steinfeld used his presentation as an opportunity to decry the tendency for parametric designers to see themselves as “toolmakers” facilitating a generative process, which he saw as an “a priori visualisation of design”. Instead, he pointed to the fact that design should reflect a feedback loop between these processes, whereby design becomes a dialogue, “a maker’s reflective conversation with his materials”. Steinfeld wasn’t the only one calling for a more craft-oriented approach, either. Marty Doscher of Morphosis outlined how that practice frames its work from the perspective of “digital design and tectonics for humans”. Doscher saw the need for a human connection between design and fabrication as absolutely critical, and the practice has a process in place whereby its upcoming young stars are required to regularly spend time on building sites, to witness the crafting of their projects and better understand the design possibilities presented by these processes. As Doscher pointed out, this approach has had its revelations, not the least of which was the discovery that the use of craftspeople is often a cheaper and more effective means of realising Morphosis’ complex, digitally rendered forms than CNC fabrication. Core to Doscher’s argument was the belief that while digital tools were certainly incredibly powerful, there were some aspects of the design process where the uniquely human qualities of features recognition and intuition were irreplaceable. This observation also formed the basis of Earl Mark’s presentation, whose work for Foster + Partners has been informed by the craft of boat building. To illustrate just how powerful these two characteristics can be in their own right, Mark pointed to the fact that the b-spline curves of boat hulls have been hewn by eye for centuries. Mark saw design analysis as fundamentally beginning with intuition, but has found that many contemporary digital tools can in fact facilitate this process, pointing to his use of movie and animation software to transform and explore digitally modelled projects and discover their “sweet spot”.

As you would expect from a gathering that incorporated so many of the leading practitioners working in the field of parametrics and digital design, the Smart Geometry Conference was dumbfounding in its breadth and scope, and unfortunately we have barely scratched the surface here. The conference served as a reminder of just how prevalent these technologies have become, and how critical they have been to the development of such a huge variety of high-profile projects the world over. Perhaps the most memorable part of the conference for me was an admission made by J Parrish, architectural director of ARUP Sport, during his presentation of the Birds Nest Stadium (developed together with Herzog & De Meuron) that he was completely unable to identify which of the stadium’s multitudinous beams were providing the primary structural support for the building. It was simply too complex, even for a leader of one of the planet’s pre-eminent engineering practices. The message was simple: without parametric tools, it, along with many of the other iconic architectural projects developed in the past decade, could simply never have been built. That in itself should give pause for thought to those who would claim digital architecture remains an exclusively abstract indulgence.

Smart Geography took place on 31 March – 1 April 2009 at the
The Palace Hotel, San Francisco

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