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It's in the genes

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Contours: Evolutionary Strategies for Design At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1, until 28 March

'Do you think, ' a prominent construction industry figure whispered at the opening of this exhibition, 'the AA has just bought a laser-cutting machine?' I suspect the answer is yes, and if the work in this show is an overall guide to its use, it should be followed by a resounding 'good for it, too'.

This is the first public outing for the recently established Emergent Technologies and Design Programme, and it is one of the most intriguing expositions of pedagogic intent I have seen. Add a little exhibition upstairs of a pair of models of Michelucci's Chiesa dell'Autostrada near Florence, and the Smithsons' Arts Barn at Bath (put together by the AA's diploma unit two), and there is a real sense of learning through experiment and public discussion.

'Contours' includes exemplars of 'emergent technologies' in design, such as Foster's British Museum Great Court, Cullinan's Downland gridshell, and, less well known, a warping, folding form for the Copenhagen Playhouse by Achim Menges, who co-directs the programme with Michael Weinstock and Michael Hensel. One can detect the deft hand of Buro Happold running through many of these, but of the major engineers it is probably the best able to bridge the gap between craft-like experimentation and number-crunching research, which these 'emergent technologies' demand.

What is particularly striking about the exhibition is that these projects are not just placed as votive objects for uncritical admiration, but that they demonstrate an intellectual programme. The other end of that programme, the students' experiments, is equally prominent.

On one level, 'emergent' revisits several old enthusiasms to do with the overlap between mathematics, science and formmaking, but in the age of artificial intelligence and information theory they acquire a new relevance. Even the most apparently complicated information reduces down to genetic algorithms, defined as its 'genotypes', or its genes or information. At this microscopic scale, the data loses any overt connection with particular disciplines, though it might be reconstituted through economics, climatic studies, engineering or architecture, into its 'phenotype' - the material construction and behaviour of an object's body; behaviour which can be modified by altering the 'genes'.

What testifies to the potential of this approach is the variety of interactions it sets up with other genres and perceptions. The Downland gridshell and the Great Court, with their swirling lines and warping forms, may have a strong visual affinity, which, shared with various 'evolutionary forms' also on display, suggests that there is a genuine aesthetic component to an apparently abstract technique.

Anish Kapoor's extraordinary Marsyas at Tate Modern (AJ 28.11.02) may have something in common with those forms, but it also has an emotive power which goes beyond its origins in 'emergent technologies'. In particular, it revisits the horrifying Greek myth of the flayed mortal who dared to play sweeter music than Apollo. Like any technical advance in art which leads to evolution in expression, 'emergent technologies' are not an end in themselves but a vehicle for exploring ideas.

Similarly, Ocean North's World Centre for Human Concerns and the Copenhagen Playhouse have forms that seem to come from 'emergent technologies' but also engage with urbanism. From an approach to 'genetic coding', a new genre of design might be emerging.

Being less tied to specific programmes and less ambitious in scope, the student work displayed alongside these projects seems to explore the visual possibilities in a more focused if less ambitious way. While each has its origins in a mathematical algorithm, some, their irregular forms suspended in laser-cut perspex, have a compelling visual quality which transcends the technique of their construction.

Not all are successful to this degree, but overall the exhibition manages to introduce a complex modern technology, to justify its relevance, and hint at its future development. It might be a textbook definition of a design research programme.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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