Automason Version 1.0

August 6th, 2006 | Filed under: JAC | 1 Comment »

“Now that the use of commercial geometric modelers has become normative…the discipline of architecture appears ready to resume its longer-term engagement with structured knowledge representation. This often involves the development of small-scale, ad-hoc software…”

Malcolm McCullough, from “GROCS Letter”1

“…computational irreducibility occurs whenever a physical system can act as a computer. The behavior of the system can be found only by direct simulation or observation: no general predictive procedure is possible. Computational reducibility may well be the exception rather than the rule…”

Stephen Wolfram, from “Undecidability and Intractability in Theoretical Physics”2

“…the form arising out of work performance leads to every object receiving and retaining its own…shape.”

Hugo Haring from “The House as an Organic Structure”3

SJSU Museum of Art

Contemporary architects are judged as much by their buildings as they are by the sophistication of the techniques used in design and construction. A certain fascination with technology is natural to any discipline that thrives on innovation and change. While new digital tools have had an especially profound impact on the representation of architectural space, only a few buildings today are actually put together with components fabricated on a CNC mill. This situation will perhaps change in time but for the present construction in America (and around the world) can best be described as an impure mixture of techniques supplemented by hand using traditional materials like brick and mortar. While portable masonry robots designed for both factory and on site applications are now in the early stages of development there are serious reasons to doubt that their employment will render human workers obsolete. In fact as we look back on the history of information technology, especially in the last thirty years the opposite seems to be the case. Instead of eliminating work automation has forced many to adopt new skills and become technically specialized as both products and production processes become increasingly more sophisticated. The narrow definition of Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing CAD/CAM must be expanded to include a much larger set of tools and procedures. In addition to robotic pipe layers, concrete pouring drones, and wall painting automatons we need to include new human machine-interfaces that operate on site as embedded technologies that can change the way buildings are made in the present. (augmented craft) This should be done with an eye on the body’s connection to, rather than its displacement by, technological innovations. What’s more we need to honor this relationship by developing new and powerfully expressive building forms.

Because so much architecture today is conceived through descriptive techniques like AutoCAD, digital processes are used mostly for the purpose of design and representation. Computation is rarely a direct process responsible for and self-evident in the work itself. The opposite extreme restricts computation to the realm of the virtual. This is especially true for the “Evolutionary Architecture” of John Fraser, where genetic scripts evolve in a disembodied, electronic space. In Fraser’s thesis, materials are a secondary concern so that “actual processing and assembly is external to the model.”4 While natural selection and automorphosis are processes essential to the development of an organic architecture, if they are not already expressed in a material form then they are neither organic nor architectural. To underscore this point, we developed a system that is based on the analogous operation of cellular automaton programs and masonry construction.

SJSU Museum of Art

A cellular automaton program (CA) consists of a field of discreet cells divided into small groups or neighborhoods. Defined in terms of finite states, on or off, transparent or opaque, white or black, etc., a CA computation evolves over time. The configuration of each neighborhood is used to determine the future state of the next generation of cells. Both complex and repetitive patterns emerge as a result of the direct relationship between parts acting together to form a larger system from the ground up. The idea of using simple programs to drive the construction of brick and mortar structures comes from the realization that masons work much like Cellular Automaton programs. By following local procedures based on laws of adjacency and iteration, the mason builds by stacking one brick at a time. This process is dependent on the relationship of each masonry unit to its immediate neighbors and is capable of producing complexity from very simple rules.

In an automasonry wall form emerges from the direct expression of its materials and the way they are assembled. This follows one of the guiding principles of modernism but with a difference: structures driven by simple programs can be constructed without recourse to a limited inventory of pared down and platonic forms. The patterns created in the process are entirely natural to both the craftsman and the mathematics. With simple programs building details obtain their complexity for free, no external agent, author or extraneous system is needed to design them. This kind of complexity is not dependent on the incessant differentiation of parts (complexity for a price) but on the application of fixed rules in a discrete system that requires only two components. A close examination of cellular automata also reveals the fact that complex and simple, repetitive and aperiodic, symmetrical and asymmetrical patterns can all be evolved from a single coherent logic.

With simple programs programs, designers can push masonry to its limits while respecting constraints both functional and tectonic that define its potential for complexity. The behavior and intrinsic randomness of certain CA patterns also challenges the basic assumption that deterministic systems necessarily follow predetermined ends. (A brick does not necessarily want to become an arch.) When considering emergent phenomenon as global patterns produced from the bottom-up by local interactions that spread through a system, then the “existence will” of an unfolding event, process or entity becomes meaningful in a way that an archetype does not. The “pattern language” of Christopher Alexander or the “shape grammars” used in the early 90’s to derive computer-generated forms produced either idealized, static geometries or just simple variations on a known theme. Most patterns generated from the iteration of cellular automaton programs produce evolving, teleonomic structures that cannot be described by a definite shortcut, formula or ideal type. The only way to know how a given rule will behave is to set it in motion. In this regard Henri Atlan writes:

“A teleonomic process does not…function by virtue of final causes even though it seems as if it were oriented toward the realization of forms, that will appear only at the end of a process. What in fact determines it (i.e. a teleonomic process) are not forms as final causes but the realization of a program, as in a programmed machine whose function seems oriented toward a future state, while it is in fact causally determined by the sequence of states through which the preestablished program makes it pass.”5

With a CA
masonry system, details are self-organized whereas the overall pattern produced by the code forms a tight-fitting whole that is intentionally selected by the architect. In other words, the building’s design emerges naturally from the process of staking bricks while the overall pattern is constituted in response to specific design requirements. Again, the code self-organizes the parts while the manipulation of the initial conditions gives the designer power over the whole. “God” is not in the details because the details compose themselves. An architect’s desires, his or her personal reading of the client brief, institutional protocols, functional constraints and the logic of construction merge with the rigorous operation of simple programs to produce an organic architecture that satisfies the imperative of commodity, firmness and delight.

by Mike Silver

One Comment on “Automason Version 1.0”

  1. 1 ad said at 1:34 pm on May 3rd, 2007:

    how is the technique, one used to create a (lets say) object, which you will see tomorrow, visible to your sophisticated judgement?

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