2005 Next Generation® Winners

The two winners of this year’s Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition are wildly different on the surface but share an essential quality—they represent an intersection of the design process with the processes of nature. Genware: Algorithmic Library, by Columbia University professor Alisa Andrasek, is a “genetic library” of computational algorithms whose geometric configurations form the structural basis of everything from fashion patterns to interior surfaces to urban high-rises. Biopaver, by Columbia graduate student Joseph Hagerman, is a system of interlocking concrete paving blocks whose precast core becomes the seedbed for phytoremediating plants (those that remove pollutants from the soil through their own natural mechanisms). It’s not only a storm-water management solution but potentially a way to prevent pollutants from seeping into the ground.

Genware seeks to exploit the inner logic of life itself—the subtle variations in seemingly identically patterned desert dunes or the pathways of genetic engineering—to bring new form to the built environment. Biopaver uses the built environment as a way to manage nature by playing off of, rather than overwhelming, its own processes. Both approaches resonate with something particularly American, some faint whisper of the pastoral ideal and technological reality the country has long tried to reconcile, that “machine in the garden,” as Leo Marx called it.

In the case of Genware, the genetic algorithm is not new; indeed it’s becoming one of engineering’s most favored approaches. Faced with the task of designing a structural element—say, an airplane wing—engineers analyze the degrees of strain that will affect each of the myriad “microstructures” found in the object. Rather than design each microstructure individually, a genetic algorithm is created to search for the optimal pattern of each microstructure through an adaptive process of trial and error that evokes the evolutionary logics of mutation and selection. This digital blueprint, a sort of DNA code, can then be three-dimensionally “printed” through rapid-prototyping techniques.

Andrasek’s project, however, bridges the gap between engineering and aesthetics. “Architects can model something in Maya [3-D rendering software] that is a kind of crazy, blobby Gehry-like form,” she says, “but then you give it to an engineer, and the engineer has to cut it down. It’s a very disconnected process, and I’m trying to find a way to connect them.” Rather than trying to design a discrete object or building, she envisions the creation of a “pattern intelligence” that can function across a wealth of scales and be intrinsic to the manufacturing process. “Before, the logics of production were about manufacturing repetitive modules, and then you would get this serial production of elements,” Andrasek says. What if the process instead followed the nonlinear logic of genetics, where different combinations of genes produce random results? “This way of designing follows nonlinear logic, like wave functions in mathematics,” she says. “You can control the nature of them, but not the final result. You’re setting up certain conditions and then letting this genetic game play on its own.” It is inspired by natural processes, but it is not biomimicry. It’s not about copying the form of a sunflower but employing a simulation of all the genetic decisions and accidents that led to the creation of a sunflower. It puts the garden into the machine.

An example of how this plays out in built space is Andrasek’s “Reticulars,” a “surface accessory” that will appear as part of an upcoming exhibition at New York’s New Museum. “Reticulars” is a densely woven “metamorphic curtain” that can geometrically respond to certain programmatic needs, like light. As it is described: “Metamorphic screens are derived through interbreeding of two types of computational algorithms: one generating [a] viral pattern and the other one that grows it on various topological conditions. Differential porosity accumulated on the host geometry could be parametrically adjusted to respond to various view/light conditions.” In layman’s terms, it’s a smart screen. Build things like lighting and sound requirements into the matrix, and you’ve got the makings of an entire responsive environment: architectural synesthesia.

If materiality is the final output of Andrasek’s process, then Biopaver begins with a literal building block to achieve a process. Hagerman, whose particular interest is concrete, got this inspiration after coming across “bioplastic,” a biodegradable material made from waste by-products. He first envisioned it as a molding agent to form concrete products but couldn’t immediately identify an application. “So I started thinking, there’s got to be a good use, where you’d want some biodegradable molds with concrete,” he says. His search led him to the concrete-paving industry, a multibillion-dollar business.

Environmentally, concrete is a notoriously inefficient business. (Hagerman says about a pound of carbon dioxide is produced for a pound of cement.) The concrete pavers the industry churns out offer little in the way of storm-water management, a vital issue in community development, particularly in rapidly growing areas like the Southwest, where flash floods are increasingly common. Municipalities are shifting the burden of storm-water treatment to private developers who are applying new solutions—for example, permeable concrete that allows storm water to penetrate the pavers.

And pollutants? “If you look at pervious concrete, whatever kind of pollutants you have in the water either gets trapped in the concrete or it passes through the concrete and into the ground,” Hagerman says. His solution is a cast-concrete paver into which a biodegradable core, comprised of bioplastics, has been inserted. This is a living core, featuring soil stabilizers, nutrients, seeds, inoculants, and biota—all supporting a system of phytoremediating plants. “You lay out the biopavers, let the sun and rain degrade the bioplastic mold, and in two months you have this garden growing,” Hagerman says. “It’s a controlled delivery of biological material in a paved environment.”

What unites the winners in the eyes of juror John Hong—whose firm Single Speed Design won last year’s competition—is their concern with process. “Genware intimated at how you could make all these things but didn’t really focus on one thing. And even Biopaver was about process, about dealing with water management,” he says. This emphasis on process is something he felt characterized this year’s field of Next Generation® entries. “Last year there were a lot of new materials,” he says. “Now what you do with the materials seems to be more important.” The emphasis on process, he suggests, might have to do with the increasing complexity of design itself. “People realize there’s no longer a single ‘artist’ that’s going to be doing design,” he says. “It’s so multiplatform, multifunctional—every version of the word multi. Even architectural projects need these phalanxes of consultants because the processes are becoming so complicated and contingent upon all these groups and sets of information.”

Indeed we may be entering an era of the dematerialization of design, in which things across myriad spheres—from products to architecture to the digital environments of films—are created using similar software. The onset of 3-D printing promises the ability to envision and prototype objects all in the same process, on the same machine. Type a letter, print it out; design an object, print it out. Virtual design suggests a situation in which, as the writer Bruce Sterling (currently visionary-in-residence at Art Center College of Design) argues, “the virtual model is not a model anymore” but the meta-object. “The object itself is merely hard copy; the physical object itself has become industrial output.” Products will take on the form of digital code—they won’t be actualized until a consumer orders one up. These products will be more than products: they will be intelligent agents equipped with wireless RFID tags, GPS nodes, and searchable terms—a whole “internet of things,” as Sterling says—acquiring a data trail as they move through life and telling us stories along the way.

Virtualization of design still leaves a lot of extant issues trailing in its wake—the overuse and limits of resources, problems of disposal, environmental impacts of the production process—and in these problems there were many potential solutions abiding among the finalists for the Next Generation® prize. One entry, How Stuff Is Made, suggests a Wikipedia-like living record of how these increasingly complex and dispersed manufacturing and design processes play out to offer transparency and accountability. Other entries addressed the idea of utilizing the existing urban fabric to meet new needs: for example, a columbarium, or place for the memorialization of funereal ashes, to be housed in a neglected historic hotel—not only a response to the lack of new urban cemeteries but a way to utilize the “embodied energy” of the structure.

Another set of entries dealt with what might be called “bioarchitecture,” or the creation of structures that react to their environment rather than trying to shut it out—buildings as living, breathing biomorphic entities. This has been a dream of architecture for some time; in the 1950s it was suggested that the arrival of the glass curtain wall represented a kind of architectural evolution, the separation of skin from skeleton. As structurally intelligent as they were, the glass boxes that were created were vastly inefficient. In 1955 Scientific American observed, “No building skin today approaches the performance of the biological world. The curtain wall is passive, lacking the power to adjust to the fluctuating external environment. It should be able to intervene actively in the building’s struggle to maintain its internal stability.” That could finally become a reality with David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang’s Living Glass, an “actuator polymer glass” that can sense such environmental factors as carbon dioxide and then respond by opening or closing vents; or Lance Hosey’s Smart-Shade, a louver system that operates through simple expansion or contraction of materials.

In naming two winners, the jurors were in essence raising the specter—and perhaps desirability—of a third way: What if these two ostensibly dissimilar projects were fused? What if computational dynamics (software) could be melded with the building blocks of sustainability (hardware)? What if the two together added up to some Big Idea? As Hong asked, “This Biopaver thing is just a paver, right? But what if you ran it through this Genware and came up with new paving patterns, and then you fed it information about different degrees of water going to different parts of the site, and then generated a rapid-prototyping pattern that wasn’t a grid anymore but was something much more responsive to the site?”

Sounds like a blueprint for the future.

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