Archive for May, 2011

Here is part 2 of the interview I had with Tomasz Jaskiewicz of TU Delft / Hyperbody about complexity and architecture. The first part covered Tomasz take on complexity, and the ideas from complexity that he thinks are pivotal to complexity. You can find part 1 here. The second part focuses on his application of complexity to architecture.

LG: I enjoyed the examples you showed during your presentation and I can follow the reasoning behind them, tracing it back to complexity thinking. However, I find it hard to transfer your examples to concrete building projects. How does complexity translate into buildings where people can live, work or recreate and that are compliant to building regulations, and can be build at realistic price levels?

TJ: ” There is not one answer here. Complexity translates to a better understanding of architecture. One may employ that understanding to comprehend ‘traditional’, i.e. from vernacular to modernist, architecture more profoundly and more productively, through its interactions with the social, cultural and natural systems and from that understanding gradually devise ways to improve our living environment. I’m very fond of the work done by e.g. The Responsive City in this respect. However, one can also choose a more radical path, and rethink architecture from scratch, gradually building up its complexity, starting from the assumption that every designed component of architecture can be treated as an autonomous agent, whose agency can be augmented through technological tools. Many projects from the Hyperbody group directly address the practicalities of this approach, yet we haven’t managed to demonstrate a ready-to-live-in example just yet. I hope the time for this will come soon.”

So do I. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that is especially true for complexity theorists. In my field, thinking in terms of complexity has received a lot of criticism. Some say it is a fad, full of fancy terms but with little added value. How is that in architecture?

TJ: “The value of complexity theory to me doesn’t lay in helping us to solve known problems in a better way. The value is in redefining those problems through a different understanding of the world we live in. The criticism comes from those who either don’t understand or feel personally threatened, or both, in most cases. Such criticisms are nothing new if you look at history of human thought.”

Ha, couldn’t agree more. I need to remember that phrase about redefining. I feel that this is an important but understated added value. To me, thinking in terms of complexity has added a whole new layer of analytical depth when thinking about the urban. During your lecture I didn’t catch what level you are on. Is it about the analysis of space, or the operation of complexity mechanisms (such as nested agents) or something else?

TJ: “For practical reasons I chose to start from simple systems. Dwelling on relationships between one user and one component and to create complexity by gradually adding actors to such systems and establishing connections beyond the conceptually drawn boundary between the system of the outside world. I think it’s a productive way, that allows you to develop a gradual understanding of the complexity of the system you create (or in the words of Pask, which you “set in motion”). Thus in this case it’s an empirical, active approach, where the developing of understanding of the interplay between architecture, humans and nature goes hand in hand with building up an intervention into this system. Starting simple and reaching the complex.”

Yeah, that is an approach that I’m familiar with.

TJ: “I wondered whether in the projects I showed we are indeed just scratching the surface of complexity in architecture. If I were to use that metaphor, I’d rather say that while building up an understanding of architectural complexity we are scratching the surface of architecture itself from the inside out. Through a fundamentally different understanding of architecture we are reinventing ways for dealing with its internal mechanisms and the solidified crust of architectural surface is about to explode from within and hopefully be set in motion.”

You see, many of the discussions about the use of complexity in the social sciences focus on whether complexity provides metaphors or analytical tools. The first is often frowned upon because metaphors are fun but of little analytical value. You know, if someone writes “boids behave this or that way using simple rules of behavior, therefore people should behave like that”… than it receive a lot flak for being superficial and metaphorical at best. Unfortunately, quite some work never surpasses that level. 

TJ: “I am against metaphors here. But on the analytical side, the problem with borrowing from other areas in complexity research is that in many of these domains the homogeneity of agents is taken for granted, as in boids. Whereas, in the real world, such homogeneity doesn’t really exist, agents are highly heterogeneous, especially on human-agent scale and there are many more interactions between them than we could ever list. The simulation models, no matter how close they may be to predicting real-world phenomena, will always be simplifications and abstractions of reality. So, it’s not about borrowing simulation tools directly from other domains that are dealing within complexity research but about understanding the differences and using complexity as an ontological standpoint instead.”

Yes, I fully agree with that. But does that matter to architects? I mean, your task is to create a renewed world, whereas my task is to analyze how the current situation came about. I sense we are in the same murky basement but in different corners… Would you agree with that? 

TJ: “I prefer to think that creating a different, “renewed” world is inherently tied to understanding the “current situation” of the world now. Analyzing the “current situation” versus creating a new reality may be two different starting points and may follow a different line of argumentation, but, I think, they are bound to converge… perhaps when more light is brought to the murky basement? Analysing the situation as it is now from social studies perspective inevitably leads to a direction for changing the “current situation “, and that change, if executed,  is bound to be reflected in architecture of that future, as architecture forms one network with the society. Nevertheless, I would also like to defend an approach towards architecture that does not start from within the full complexity of the social, but which starts from within the agency of architecture and 1:1 relationships and interactions among its components and users, and which gradually gains more ground. It is simply more productive to have different people check different corners of your metaphorical basement for a light switch, rather than just thoroughly investigating only one corner.”

Oh yes, I fully agree with that… provided we accept that one switch will not bring full light. Let’s keep searching! Thanks again for your time and your detailed answers and good luck with your work!


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A while ago I blogged about an event where among others Tomasz Jaskiewicz of TU Delft / Hyberbody talked about complexity-informed architecture. I left with quite some questions and contacted Tomasz for more information. He was kind enough to get into detailed answers and accepted to have the discussion published on Cityness. Here is part 1 of the discussion. The other parts will be published over the next few days.

LG: Hi Tomasz, thank you for taking time to answer my questions. I found your presentation very interesting but sometimes confusing. This is probably down to my own bias so please help me to understand your argument better. Thinking in terms of complexity has the advantage of focusing on the time-dimension. ‘Complexity’ puts everything one observes into flux and that is really an added analytical value. But why would this be relevant to architecture? Isn’t architecture static by definition?

TJ: “Looking at architecture as something that is inherently static may very well be at the core of most problems that architecture of today is facing. Architecture is not about statics, as it is fully embedded in a dynamic, ever changing sphere. Bruno Latour in Actor-Network Theory provides a good angle towards such understanding of architecture by considering both humans and non-living entities as actors in one network of relationships, transactions, dependencies and mutual transformations(interactions). From such perspective we can see how architecture is not only a product of dynamic social relationships, but also how it affects, catalyses and transforms those relationships. But it’s not only about architecture and society being one complex system. It is also about nature and architecture being one system. It is also about different scales on which it all happens.”

What are your most important cues from complexity?

TJ: “From the perspective I presented, I hope, the relevance of complexity theory for architecture is more than obvious. Architecture IS a complex system of immaterial objects organising space (of human habitat), embedded in an even greater complex system of the social and the natural. This understanding of architecture is nothing new. Already Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), such a fundamental book for contemporary urbanists and architects, was referring to Warren Weaver in describing the city as a system of organised complexity. Thus, I don’t think it’s possible to say which are the most important cues for architecture in complexity. Would it be emergence, self-organisation, problem of boundaries, nested nature of natural systems, adaptivity, inherence of history, non-determinism, multiple layers of feedback, heterogeneity, entropy…? I get to ask myself if there are any cues from complexity which are not relevant for architecture? Can’t think of any.”

I understand that. I mean, once you get start seeing the world as temporal systems, it is pretty hard to return to statics. So, which authors in the realm of complexity do you consider important? 

TJ: “For me the interest in complexity started with cybernetics, and here ideas of Norbert Wiener are of course from historical perspective a good starting point. From the architectural perspective it’s impossible to omit Gordon Pask. But from there it has not been a linear path. For the architectural discourse it helps to know Manuel Castells and his insights into “network society” and Juval Portugali’s view on the self-organising city, but these texts are not to be taken without a dose of criticism, that, for example, may well be founded in works of Henri Lefebvre on the ‘production of space’. I have lately become a fan of Bruno Latour’s ANT and I have always been greatly inspired by Manuel DeLanda, which are normally not pigeonholed as belonging complexity theory, or are they?

I’m not familiar with DeLanda but Latour has an uneasy position within complexity theory. I toyed around with his ideas for a while but it never enabled me to reach the analytical depths offered by complexity theorists’ inner circle of authors.

TJ: “But they provide a great foundation for dealing with complexity theory problems. Kevin Kelly in ‘Out of Control’ might be the best example among countless popular-science books that make the phenomena of complexity accessible to newbies. From the practical perspective, John Holland provided me with a solid foundation for the understanding of mechanisms of adaptation and working with adaptive agents, that has been very helpful for me in coming up with practical solutions when building artificial adaptive agents, but there, it’s often most practical to also investigate books from computer science, which deal directly with strategies and approaches for modeling agents. Wooldridge provides a good starting point. I also found some inspiration in studying approaches for building artificial intelligence systems (e.g. Artificial Intalligence: A modern approach by Novig and Russel).

Yeah, I noted that you work builds on Holland’s work…

TJ: “…but this is just my personal path of building up my fairly specific understanding of complexity in the context of architecture. There are many more great authors that have dealt with these problems that may provide great insights and inspiration to architects and others dealing with spatial planning and design problems. The bottom line, is that professionals should develop an understanding of architecture that allows to look at it from within its systemic complexity and to engage themselves in forging new relationships within this system. Otherwise we will only ‘scratch the surface’ of spatial organisation without having any idea what are the forces under that surface making this surface come to being.”

 Part 2 of this discussion will focus on how Thomasz applies complexity to architecture and can be found here.  

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Last week I mentioned that was participant in a research conducted by Delft University of Technology. Local television channel TV Rijnmond found out and wanted to cover the research. Here is their report with interviews of project leader Frank van der Hoeven and yours truly. Notice the high-quality acting performances of the respondents, obediently but casually walking and cycling past the camera…

There was also a quick interview on the local radio channel. However, the interview was much shorter than planned because the equipment failed. Go to Rijnmond’s website to see and hear it all.

The first results from this research will become available in two months and will also be posted here.

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NAi organized a lecture about how complexity (theory) informs architecture and invited Kas Oosterhuis and Tomasz Jaskiewicz to talk about this subject. Naturally, I couldn’t let this one pass. Both architects started from the premises of complexity, i.e. that complexity is an expression of time and therefore dynamic, and that complexity emerges from the local interaction of agents exchanging information. This is familiar stuff for anybody who has played with complexity. Oosterhuis’ lecture was geared towards showing examples of how he tries to incorporate complexity in this thinking. He showed a flock of birds to illustrate the cues he took from Reynold’s famous boids-simulation. Those boids are able to create very complex forms using very simple rules of behavior. The architectural translation means a building were the nodes were of the building were designed according to such principles of self-organization. Other examples included a facade of moving panels, driven by pistons and dynamic sensors that respond to the people passing by or using the building. The overall experience is of a building acknowledging people are present.

Trans-Ports by Oosterhuis (2001)

Thomas Jaskiewicz focused on the nestedness of agents in systems in order to work on buildings that communicate with its users in a dynamic way. The consequence of nestedness leads to buildings that can be taken apart and rearranged without structural changes, i.e. the building as an assemblage. Combined with the focus on time and the changes that are time-induced, designing a building becomes a never-ending process. By designing parts of the building as communicating agents, it becomes possible to create a dynamic and responding building, as exemplified by e.g. Muscle Tower 2 below. An interesting note was that Jaskiewicz argued that the distinction between designers and users of a building disappears because a dynamic building can be tested and readjusted continuously by both groups during the life-time of the building.

It was an interesting evening. Jaskiewicsz lecture was clearer for lay-people because his argument was linear whereas Oosterhuis experimented with a bricolage of themes, allowing the audience to vote for themes using smart phones. Although interesting in its form, it also risked a disjointed story. Both architects were clearly familiar with thinking about complexity and it was interesting to see how they try to incorporate complexity in their designs. While this is laudable, I also left with the feeling that they have only started to scratch the surface of complexity. It is one thing to be inspired by complexity and its images but it is an entirely different thing to practice a complexity-approach to architecture. The first was evident during the lectures, the second not.

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