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Art of the possible

review - NOX: Machining Architecture By Lars Spuybroek. Thames & Hudson, 2004. 392pp. £29.95

'Blobbism' is the style of the decade. Everybody's doing it, from old masters like Norman Foster (Gateshead Music Centre) and Peter Cook (Kunsthaus, Graz) to young tigers like Greg Lynn and Lars Spuybroek. The reason is obvious: architects are designing blobs because they can. Three-dimensional design software and CAD/CAM production make it possible.

This shallow motivation might explain why we are already getting tired of blobbism. All over the world, ambitious young architects are racking their brains to come up with the next new style. When only a few people could handle the software, blobbist designs (usually virtual) were mysterious and wonderful. They seemed to promise an architectural revolution, but now that every second-year student can churn out interesting blobs, the price has gone down.

Committed blobbists are obliged to defend their market by adding value to their product. They have to persuade us to take it seriously, and the way to do that is to give it an injection of theory, to provide it with a kind of philosophical 'back story'. That is one of the aims of this book.

The result is not without interest. NOX is the name of Spuybroek's practice, based in Rotterdam. Spuybroek has been handling three-dimensional software for 15 years or more, so he has spent a long time thinking about the relationship between architecture and computers. His introductory essay, though dense, is well written and thoughtprovoking, roping in thinkers as diverse as Maurice Merleau Ponty, Gilles Deleuze, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson and Oliver Sacks. In comparison, the heavyweight essays at the end of the book, contributed by a variety of would-be philosophers jumping on the blobbist bandwagon, are mostly pointless theory-spinning.

For Spuybroek, computer-aided design is not simply a question of producing organic forms that would have been impossible before.

For one thing, there is the complicated cluster of ideas summed up in that word: 'organic'. He uses computers to imitate the processes, not just the forms, of nature. Responsiveness - of an organism to its environment, or a building to its users - is an important theme.

In the Dutch town of Doetinchem, for example, NOX designed a tower that changes colour with the mood of the townspeople.

Green, red, blue and yellow stand for hatred, love, happiness and fear (see below). Responses are gathered by means of a questionnaire on a website, and the colour changes are automatic. The tower behaves like a plant, responding to changes in the chemical composition of the soil it stands in, but it looks more like an animal, or a visitor from outer space - a blob on legs, in fact, made from epoxy resin cast in a CNC-milled styrofoam mould.

A lot of NOX's work is like this - artworks, exhibitions and installations, plus a few large-scale projects like the well-publicised World Trade Center scheme and a truly nightmarish megastructure for Frankfurt, draped in a uniform honeycomb blanket.

There are few actual buildings and most of these are relatively simple, single-storey structures, like the 1993 H2O Expo for the Dutch Ministry of Water Management and the nearby toilet block called 'Blow Out'.

A curious feature of these buildings is that they look more convincing 'in virtual' than they do 'in real'. When all the splines, nurbs and control vertices are translated into solid, gravity-resisting structures, they turn into nothing more mysterious than profile-cut formers and longerons, like primitive aircraft fuselages. Spuybroek seems to be aware of this limitation and has recently started to use physical rather than digital models to 'generate' his designs. Frei Otto, whom he met in 1998, has become his guru, reminding him, and us, that organic forms and processes were a part of architecture long before computers entered the studio.

This is a fat book, with a lot of visual and verbal padding, but its author is a creative spirit with interesting things to say. Perhaps there is a future for blobbism after all.

Colin Davies is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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