Structuring Complexity

Jun 9, 2009
  • Article by Anthony Burke

“The surprise is that underneath at the basis, the creations are from a similar ground or substrate of concepts. Nothing to do with architecture, unless architecture is everything to do with organisation.” – Cecil Balmond *

“Structure is the architects mother tongue; the architect is a poet who thinks and speaks in structure.” – Auguste Perret.

The clear structural project of the Centre Pompidou (1977) by Piano, Rogers and Franchini, as well as engineers Edmund Happold (who would later found Buro Happold) and Peter Rice, in many ways commenced the second era of modernist experiments celebrating structural engineering as a form of architectural expression. The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 1978 and The Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in 1985 by Sir Norman Foster followed close behind, as did a host of others, foregrounding the strong machinic rationalisation of rhythm and steel, a logic of modules, grids and serialised production.

Warren Weaver, however, is not a name typically associated with architecture and structural engineering, yet well before Pompidou, he was articulating a mathematical and spatial reorganisation after mechanisation and the serial purity of the early moderns, which has in many ways recast the logic of space itself.
Warren Weaver wrote a paper in 1948 titled Science and Complexity, as the director of the Division of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, New York, having worked with the Applied Mathematics Panel at the US Office of Scientific Research and Development. The paper was published in American Scientist (36:536, 1948) and set out his understanding of the problems that would engage the scientific community at large for the last half of the modern century. Critically, he charted a trajectory that was moving from problems of “Simplicity” – those problems that the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wrestled with in the physical sciences, resulting in the discovery of the variables “which bought us the telephone and the radio, the automobile and the airplane” – to problems of “Disorganized Complexity”, that scientific period of 20th century development where statistics and probability governed the development of information theory, graph theory and so on. Finally, however, Weaver identified a period of exploration that lay ahead and that would pre-occupy the sciences for decades, effecting all the disciplines, from biology to physics, and re-drawing the map of relations that make up the world we knew. This era he believed would be characterised by the problems of “Organised Complexity”.

Weaver wrote this paper sitting in an office just next to the urbanist Jane Jacobs, as she was writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities, later published in 1961. Jacobs at that time was formulating her rejection of modernist planning principals of the city and developing her own image of the city as a complex organic organisation of subtle local interconnections and their emergent urban effects. That their thinking aligned was not coincidental. Weaver’s effect on her thinking was direct, and especially pronounced in the last chapter of her book, “The kind of problem a city is”. In this chapter Jacobs speculates on the organisational complexity of a city, and how we might go about understanding this complexity and putting it into action. New forms of organisation that order matter in space by balancing myriad complex interactions provided the foundation for a type of rationality of a different order to the mechanical inspiration of Gropius, Mies and Corbusier.

Computing machinery, code breakers, radar systems, and fully established mass production systems gave image to the rationality of the serialised underpinning of the early modern era caught so well by Siegfried Gideon in 1948. But the theories of a new complexity being written down in 1949 by the likes of Weaver were not irrational, so much as a different order of rationalisation that bridged both natural geometries, mathematics and ultimately computational logic.

Nearly 60 years later, we are still grappling with the implications of Weaver’s vision in both philosophical as well as technical terms. Yet it is precisely this mathematics of organised complexity, that Jacobs sought to bring directly to urbanism, that also made visible a whole world of natural structures and organisations that we had been blind to before. What Weaver revealed was what Cecil Balmond, the man behind Arup’s Advanced Geometry group and guru mystic engineer, calls deep structure, “that peculiar balance again of the irregular within the determinate.” ** Coupled with information theory, cybernetics, graph theory and later complexity theory itself, a whole platform for understanding the organisation of our world was rewritten over the last 50 years which has lead more and less directly to the renewed fascination with natural geometries and their intersection with algorithmic processes that are redefining the possibilities of structure and architecture today.

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At the core of this new turn is not the aesthetic project of Rogers and Piano, nor the brute machine of the early Foster. Rather structure in these terms is understood as the subtle organisation of space and matter in response to the complex balancing of many forces of which gravity is only one. The enthusiastic structural expression behind a project like the Birds Nest is not this kind of structure. The essentially applied structural solution here is more about a structural façadism than a sense of integrated and dynamic structure, space and performance. It is a show of pattern, rather than an operationalisation of it. The DNA Bridge in Singapore by COX and Arup, however, is representative of these more subtle organising principles. This project has turned structure into a high performance, elegant weave of space that seamlessly integrates rather than separates the functions of the built fabric. What complexity and the mathematics behind it have opened up is a new form of rationalism, not orthographic but subtle, intelligent, optimised and responsive.

It is these logics that are providing design and research inspiration to a new generation of design studios, in that they offer the potential to integrate clear and precise geometries with new forms of structural performance. Tom Wiscombe and his practice Emergent in LA is a good example of the new design office. Working with embedded engineers at every opportunity, Wiscombe has spent time looking at the integration of surface and structure morphologies very carefully. He has an unconventional passion for design through highly integrated and beautifully balanced structural dynamics, which he has explored through translating the lessons of dragon fly wings and lily pads into the structural DNA of subdivided surfaces and branching systems. All of these projects have the crucial mathematics behind them that allow for accurate and extensive ratios to be played out through contemporary technologies and computational methods.

In-studio fabricating facilities, as well as an exceptionally high degree of engineering partnership in both research and design phases of any project, ensure Wiscombe’s work aggressively tackles new structural logics at every opportunity. That the formal results are so unique is an expression of the thinking behind their surfaces.

The mathematics of precise complex curvature, nesting or cascading geometries and agent based swarms, form the principals that allow Wiscombe and other architects to think about a non-orthogonal rationality with precision. An alternative to “the drive of a rational ethic to label reason as linear and determinable”, a rational ethic as Balmond goes on to say that “may be convenient but not real in the fact of the world.” *** Form in this way of thinking is developed by balancing a complex and subtle expression of explicit performances and responses – contextual, environmental, operational, structural and social – that are developed in parallel. And, unlike the in-silico experiments that dominated the developments of digital technologies in architecture in the ‘90s, this next generation of work is integrated, complex and determinedly in the world. Even while striving for more efficiency, more integration and more spatial opportunity, it is this form of deep structure that is driving more engagement with the specifics of place, project and performance, and delivering new forms of elegance and subtle expression.

While it is correct to say that new computational tools have made this possible, this does not comprehend or encapsulate the enormous change in the fundamental understanding of space that has occurred. What has emerged after the first 45 years of digital work is the creation of the numerate designer, who controls systems of geometry and organisation through understanding the mathematics and coded logics that underpin them. The creative possibilities within this turn have been well tested in art and media practice, with an equally strong recent history of computational work in graphic design, engineering and industrial design to build on. This is a move from sketching to scripting, or more precisely to sketching by scripting, which has founded a renewed understanding between engineering and architecture that is making that well-worn relationship bear new fruit. Certainly, that Balmond has been involved from the first instance in such powerful projects as CCTV as well as almost every Serpentine Pavilion installation since the program’s inception is no coincidence. Equally, from Toyo Ito to SANAA, it is not surprising that engineering figures like Matsuro Sasaki are so revered and creatively instrumental in so many of Japan’s leading practices.

Behind the assumption of structure that some of the works in this issue allude to is a new set of numerical relations and ratios, those found more closely in nature than in the mechanisation of the production line. Engineers like Balmond, Sasaki, and Happold are telling architects they can be bolder, rather than that they should value engineer. Architects are used to engineers being the conservative ones, now the shoe is on the other foot as the broader architectural culture, happy to draw boxes all day long, struggle to understand design in generative or numerate terms. Yet some practices are and it is those digital natives who understand computation intimately that are finding ways to participate in a larger trans-disciplinary conversation, beyond the technology that underpins it. Integrating structure and design, performance and expression, optimisation and creativity, an architecture that both reflects and participates in this era of organised complexity is giving shape to the world that Weaver imagined.

* Cecil Balmond, A+U Cecil Balmond Special Edition, (A+U Publishing company) Nov 2006, p60
** Cecil Balmond, A+U Cecil Balmond Special Edition, (A+U Publishing company) Nov 2006, p19
Cecil Balmond, A+U Cecil Balmond Special Edition, (A+U Publishing company) Nov 2006, p131

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