Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Architects as Catalysts

An anonymous blogger commented on this idea from my last post:

"You mention that Architects, in this scenario, play the role of "catalyst for a design". If Architects become not the sole designers, but merely facilitators for design, what does that mean for the profession?"

Whoever you are, thanks for asking! The professional implications of these new design methods are astounding! In my previous post, I had said that the parametric revolution would position architects as catalysts for design which evolves. The most obvious illustration of this statement is a basic script. A script is a pre-written bit of code which, when enacted by the designer, carries out a list of functions. In this scenario, the designer does very little actual work, however, the code has generated a potentially enormous amount of data. If a designer can then take several bits of code, and weave them together appropriately, entire building systems can be produced automatically. (check out eat-a-bug)

The question reminds me of something Yona Friedman wrote about decades ago in Towards a Scientific Architecture. There, he suggested that architects could abandon the creation of discrete building forms, in favor of producing portfolios of building components. His theory was that architects could become (again?) trusted advisers, guiding clients through the implications, opportunities, and dangers of selecting particular building components or systems. While this form of professional practice is dramatically different than our current one, it does align closely with the parametric design process. In both scenarios, the architect has a wealth of components to choose from, but he/she is also becomes responsible for the harmonious and discerned composition of the elements.
While the idea of using building components is not new (think of Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino, or the high-tech building style of the eighties), the idea of allowing clients to have a direct influence over their composition is new. One attempt to enact Friedman’s theory has been done by Endhoven University of Technology. The university developed a ‘puzzle’ type interface for client-designed houses. Each puzzle piece was assigned parameters (code) and conditions (associations with other components). The parameters define what the piece is, and the conditions define how it can be used. Clients can then configure puzzle pieces, which relay to a visual rendering of the house in real time. While the architect is not seen in this process, he/she still exists as the author of the puzzle, defining all available pieces, and how they may relate to one another. This affords the possibility of an architect being lauded for the quality of the puzzle, rather than a single composition from its pieces. In this approach, the role of the architect is not slighted, but simply altered. In this scenario, the architect would have to give up the right to exclude the client from the design process. In return, the architect would maintain relevance in today’s collaborative society, and gain a greater understanding of their clients.