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In at the birth of the Blob

architech

If square tools of the trade were responsible for Modernism, then computer technology means the future is? Blobby

It is not entirely surprising that people in the creative fields, surrounded as they now are by CAD, CADCAM, digital imaging, verifiable 3D imaging and virtual reality, have occasionally pondered whether these new methods of modelling have any effect on the nature of the end product.

It is a variation on Marshall McLuhan's tricksy medium/massage proposition. For architects the question most commonly asked has been whether or not the T-square and setsquare determined architects' visual preferences for the orthogonal sparseness of Modernism simply because these tools most readily produce regular geometric forms. The corollary is that the freeform of Blob, or however you care to describe the architecture of the avant-garde present, has surely flowered (or, if you hate it, been unleashed) as a consequence of the deployment in the architectural studio of 3D software applications that are capable of - indeed, predicated upon - free-form shapes. Most of these applications, incidentally, were originally devised for other activities such as 3D graphics, film cartoon animation, the mapping of jet fighter airframes plus their skins, or analysis of the topology of groundwater.

Ofcourse, the simplistic argument that T-square equals orthogonal and 3D Studio equals Selfridges, Birmingham, breaks down as soon as you think about Vierzehnheiligen which, by all accounts, Balthasar Neumann designed using conventional T-square and set-square - as did Frederick Kiesler his Endless House and Ron Herron his Walking City. But there is no gainsaying the strong suspicion that the introduction of the computer into the offices of engineers and architects has enabled them to literally think outside the box.

Growing library

And so, in the past couple of years, that little digital section in the corner of architecture bookshops has steadily grown in size and scope. Neil Spiller's important and exploratory 1998 book Digital Dreams had a subtitle redolent of the inexplicable potential beauties of the cyber-universe: 'architecture and the new alchemical technologies'. And, among others, including John Frazer's Evolutionary Architecture and Greg Lynn's Animate Form, there was last year's toe-in-the-digital-water from Yale, Mapping in the Age of Digital Media.

And now, in the last month or so, we have a bunch of books on cognate topics. They include Kostas Terzidis' compendium of digital form types, Expressive Form - a conceptual approach to computational design.

There is the collection of Mappingstyle essays, Digital Tectonics, this time from people centred on Bath University who it would seem are signed-up disciples of Deleuze and Guattari and of Cambridge Engineering Design Centre co-chief Kristina Shea and her 'stochastic, non-monotonic shape annealing' software eifForm.Among the texts in this book are several on GaudÝ's approach to design, including one about the hanging models and another about GaudÝ's use of second-order geometry. And there is one by Shea herself.

Heavy hints

The essays in Mapping were cautious; those in Digital Tectonics are less tentative and hint at more: 'For some time architects and engineers have used computer programs to test the structural stability of their designs.

But programs are now being developed for actually generating novel structural forms. These go beyond the already very sophisticated use of genetic algorithms championed by Karl Chu and others, to produce forms which have their own structural integrity.Using such programs as eifForm, 'the fidesignerflmerely establishes certain defining coordinates and then unleashes the program, which eventually ficrystallisesfl and resolves itself into a certain configuration. Each configuration is a structural form which will support itself against gravity and other prescribed loadings. And yet each configuration thrown up by the program is different.'

You think of Blob and then of the Surrealists' preoccupation with automatic writing.

Among the other texts we find Cecil Balmond, Lars Spuybroek and van Berkel and Bos talking over recent preoccupations. For architectural people worried about an engineering takeover, Balmond speaks with ominous enthusiasm: 'I started getting interested in structure in a broader sense when I realised suddenly that structure actually had all the ingredients that architecture had, if you start to look for a more radical architecture. Episode, boundary, travelling margins - these are all structural concerns.' Ah, those old travelling margins.

Harder line

Kostas Terzidis' book promises a much harder line. The blurb begins: 'With the increased use of computers, architecture has found itself in the midst of a plethora of possible uses.

The book offers some alternative directions, which combine theoretical inquiry with practical implementation.' Terzidis elaborates: 'The mode of utilising computers in architecture today is vague, inexplicit, and often arbitrary? Often, theories of design and form are fitranslatedfl into computational ones merely to participate in the digital fashion? Challenging these assumptions, the book offers an appropriate theoretical context for computer-based experimentations, explorations and form-making.

By employing computational and formal theories, such as those of kinetic, algorithmic, hybrid, folded or warped form, the author offers a theoretical bridge between the establishment of the past and the potential of the future.' In the end you really wonder whether he has achieved that somewhat nebulous ambition because, although you have certainly learned a little about folded, hybrid etc, forms, and that they are connected by the activity of geometry, that's about it.

Visual delight

Less overtly cerebral, but visually delicious, is Joseph Rosa's book, Next Generation Architecture, which reveals the prevalence of built non-orthogonal architectural forms. Rosa explains that the book is an expansion of an exhibition he curated at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 'Folds, Blobs, and Boxes: Architecture in the Digital Era', 'which looked at the range of possibilities offered to architecture by digital technology. The work variously demonstrates computing technology as rendering, as a means of fabrication, and most evocatively as a way to rethink architecture at many scales - rather than merely transcribing more efficiently what is already familiar.'

Rosa continues: 'Terms such as beauty, scale, and proportion, once used to describe the massing, articulation and texture of pre-digital vernacular, have given way to adjectives like smooth, supple, and morphed, derived from digital-age practices that are finding their niche in the ideology of 21st-century architecture.' As you would expect of a grown-up exhibition catalogue, this is a visual feast of projects and completed buildings prefaced by a little history of pre-digital non-orthogonal architecture, mostly from around the middle of the last century. I hope, though, that nobody makes the mistake of consigning Archigram to the role of Blob precursor.

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Simply the best

And then, to bring us back to transcribing more efficiently what is already familiar, there is the privately circulated, modest and untitled collection of Hayes Davidson's oeuvre.

Alan Davidson's team in its studio behind Paddington Tube Station is the best in the world, and not just because its members draw inspiration - not from digital randomness but from artists as diverse as Hugh Ferris, Cyril Farley, William Walcott and (though they don't mention him) Edward Hopper. There are two elements that are not immediately obvious in this collection. One is the firm's incredible pioneering work in producing verifiable 3D images (and sometimes from moving viewpoints) which stand up in court and planning inquiries. The other surfaces quietly on the last page in the 1996 image, London 2050. It is only when Davidson himself shows you the 'before' view of this image that you realise this seemingly innocuous night view of London from a rooftop swimming pool somewhere in Bermondsey is actually a construct of a London populated by dozens of yet unbuilt tower buildings. And you hadn't noticed the difference.

Computer equals blob? You begin to understand there is more to it than that.

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