Main picture: Choreograments. Reactivation strategy for the Linnahall, Tallinn, Estonia. 2010, project by Rasa Navasaityte, Daniel Köhler. Source: http://www.lab-eds.org/Choreograments-Linnahall
Easy access to simulation tools in architecture, engineering and urban planning would allow more precise solutions, which are tailored to the particular needs of a society or area, however in practice such software is rare and unfamiliar to designers. The work of lab-eds allows an intuitive, conceptual analysis of controlled interactions in design. But it is not all that Rasa Navasaitytė and Daniel Köhler reveal about their research. Among others, they shed some light on what the ecological form looks like and the idea of complicity – a new scale to consider in architectural design.
Laka: In lab-eds you have come up with the idea of complicity. It is brilliant how the term covers both the scale issues and the fact that design requires a team, or, partners in crime! What was the origin of the idea?
Daniel Köhler & Rasa Navasaitytė: Good that you start directly with complicity! For us, complicity became a quite important word condensing not only a mode to operate but also the way one can think buildings beyond production. In most discourses today, architecture is framed as a form of making, and to that end as the process before even being a building. Such discussions dominated the last century, starting with the promise of mass-production (Walter Gropius), which turned later into a discourse on mass-customization (Patrik Schumacher) and the interest in new modes of fabrication (Achim Menges). However, progressing computational performance and the maturing of truly digital fabrication methods, like 3D-printing, reduce production time and costs towards zero in the close future. Today already, one can iterate design objects in seconds and print whole buildings in a few hours. With the improvement of those technologies, architecture liberates itself from production. This goal of critical modernism has been achieved. What is left is the building, the architecture by itself.
Oh, so the research was a trigger for lab-eds to come into being!
Observing this shift, we began to search for new ways to think architecture, starting with existing, discrete entities; considering design as the organization of a building with a bunch of commodities. The history of architecture is full of methodologies describing buildings as forms of organizational matter: just think of typology. But, we didn’t want to run into the same impasse: descriptions like typologies also reduce buildings to commodities: for the purpose of its content, like a single-family-house or to the properties of its form, like a patio-house. Opposed to such former abstractions, our aim is to create open, free, and non-determined conditions through forms of complicity between real, discrete, and individual entities. Complicity is here a promising proposition, as the word comes not with the overload of the classic term composition, it is non-stylistic like parametric, it is less abstract than overlap, less formal than parthood, and less digital than peer-to-peer. As you nicely pointed out, complicity describes, on the one hand, a bond between individuals – partners in crime. But on the other hand, a bond by definition is non-transparent and cryptic for anyone or anything detached from it. Therefore, in past epochs, complicities were seen suspect, characteristics of e.g. criminals. In today’s digital culture this image reversed; so to say, the mug became the bug, the glitch, or the doodle. We became used to and handle incompleteness nowadays not anymore as an error. But, actually, we feel quite comfortable in our daily, partial entanglement between algorithms, things and strangers.
How did you realize there is a scale missing in design?
Scale as the classical ordering according to size, the S, M, L, XL already disappeared in the works of the first generation of digital architects. From a vase to a car, to a villa, and landscape all objects were designed with similar features, according to the same underlying morphological model. On the one hand this was quite liberating, but on the contrary, it was also a form of repetition and therefore reductive, basically the mass customization of just one model. However, when you look at the set of drawings which a classic modernist would conduct at specific scales, then you notice that scale beyond size also focused on certain regimes, like social ones: the individual, the family, the community, the public. Drawing at a determined scale also opened a particular window on a project and its entanglement with a bunch of regimes. Therefore scale was also a point of view in this sense. With the flatness of digital models, scale as size is gone, but scale still offers the idea of involving multiple regimes through a particular point of views.
How can the theoretical ideas you develop within lab-eds be implemented into reality? What is your favorite example?
When we started the practice after graduating with a few competitions, we fast recognized that the existing model in what one is molded as an architect is utterly narrow: the constraint relation between planning experts and client focuses on “to build”, in most cases excluding the life and afterlife of the building, its being. Currently, we are in a strange situation, on the one hand, the share of the construction-industry steady shrinks in relation to other economies, on the contrary, built forms, cities have an unseen impact on life quality and life itself on a planetary scale. Here, we think architecture can and should offer a much broader contribution if you consider it as a discipline: beside physicality, foremost architecture is a contribution to a cultural-political discussion on space, simply with form. More and more in political processes, we exclude form as one pictures it as a result of a process, but the form is on its own also a body of knowledge. At last, cities act through their form in a much richer and complex way than the projections during a building process can ever offer. So, for us, there is a reality of practicing architecture by exploring and establishing new habits, roles, and instruments of practice beyond the direct building process. That is the reason why we have chosen the model of a lab. It was quite natural to shift and to act from inside of academia. We see theory and teaching as kind of niches of an old industry, from where we can start to explore and offer alternatives.
Daniel, the software you have written incorporates the idea of autopoiesis, which is a characteristic of living creatures that allows them to self-rebuild, self-reconstruct in response to changing stimuli and, in consequence, survive. It is close to the idea of Architecture that Reacts, which lab-eds and Laka have in common! In your experience, is biology always the source and cause of parametric research in architecture?
Maturana’s insight of a creature’s independence reverses the whole notion of autonomy and discreteness. In the light of autopoiesis, you don’t consider a discrete entity anymore as just rigid. Before that, with an understanding of complete access the only way to think an absolute form of autonomy was to reduce it to its limit. The most radical example for this passive form of discreteness in recent architecture history is here O.M. Unger’s squares as the minimal extend references to a Cartesian space. Opposed to that, with autopoiesis, the Discrete becomes the unknown and undrawable; the Self is independent in the first place from an environment. With Maturana’s form of autopoiesis, the environment turns into a bunch of biologies, an open system articulated by ecological thinking. To stay with a biological metaphor, let me draw here my favorite example: the penguin. Conceived from a biological perspective, the penguin is a quite unlucky creature. Looking just at the penguin one cannot grasp how the penguin can survive in one of the harshest environments, being a quite chubby bird, it can even not fly. One can just understand the penguin from an ecological perspective: as an individual, but entangled and part of several environments. The fat body makes it a perfect swimmer and hunter, but more important an excellent hugger, resisting the Antarctic winter by holding close to other penguins in a pack. Although considered separately the penguin seems to be incomplete, the penguin’s individuality is here crucial as penguins constantly move and change their position inside of the pack. This kind of re-hugging is a purely, ecological gesture preventing penguins from cooling down, withdrawn from classifications like here its shape and similar top-down comparisons. Discrete objects demand a bottom-up perspective.
Rasa, your research focuses on the architectural framework of ecological form. How does the ecological form differ from the traditional one?
This connects very much to the first question and the meaning of complicity. I am very much interested in the embracement of figures. Traditionally, you would define a form from the start on, with a category and you would sort and compare elements to such predefined properties, like their shapes, contours, stiffness, etc. The ecological form does not start with predefined categories, but with found objects. The ecological form of an element you can just conceive through the exploration of the figure. You want to open the element. The form derives from playing, it is expressed through the relation of pieces, and the role they are taking on in an environment. In a way, it is the tension between an inside and an outside of an element. By designing, you start with a reduced insight and explore complexity. This is actually not so much different from computational model-making.
Daniel, how does the punktiert and bRigid software help understand architectural and urban design?
From an ecological point of view, architecture can just start with the individual, the automata and offer forms of complicity. Technically, as a designer, you need then an interactive drawing environment: simply simulation tools. However, most existing tools are designed for the simulation of controlled interactions, in particular for movies and games. Simulation software used in engineering is precise but also quite verbose and complicated to use. As a designer you want to draw fast synthesis, so you need an easy access, simple to hack. Such simulation tools do not actually exist. Punktiert is thought as a particle engine to sketch interaction between entities; bRigid allows you simulate packs and piles like you would work with a physical model, you can compose digitally with rigid entities. Both libraries I use for my own courses as a conceptual teaching tool, as your role as a designer is much more indirect. You have to think like a shepherd in a way. These libraries were also one side effect of my research at the beginning of my Ph.D.
How does the understanding of a relation of a segment of a city as small as a room and the whole city enrich an architect’s sense of design?
Today, cities are planned with not little more than Excel-sheets, purely based on numbers. One can observe an increasing tendency to describe, plan and share cities via logistic protocols and statistical means of big data. For us, it is a crucial question how an architect can take on today a critical position in a design environment completely constraint to bureaucratic means. Interestingly, in the big-data discussion urbanity is seen as a collection of values sourced from architectural elements. In this way “to be urban” means to be a particular quality of an architectural part. The specific address increases the individuality of the physical environment. It is just a question of time until they begin to talk. It is critical to amplify and stimulate such parthoods between how we share the public and where we address it. We need resonance between both, and this is our role of architects.
Next year lab-eds will be celebrating its 10th anniversary. What would you call the greatest achievement of the lab and what would you like to achieve in the future?
Since 2006 and the project 3lements we work with discrete elements. To be modest, the biggest achievement for us is that other people began to be interested in similar discourses and we see a growing community working on complicit topics. A lot of ground work was done, introducing new methodologies, but also connecting to architecture history, like in Daniel’s book: The Mereological City. In the future, we see us orienting more towards a practice besides academia and would like to grow with a lab and compelling people who could make a change.
Daniel Köhler (Urbanist, Researcher, Co-founder of lab-eds) leads a research cluster at the UCL Bartlett in London, is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Innsbruck and is an Associate Professor for digital design strategies at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. He has taught at several institutions, including the Sci-Arc, Städelschule, Aalto University and the University of East London. Daniel is the author of the book: “The Mereological City”, a study on the modes of part-to-whole relations between architecture and its city during modernism. Complementary to theory, he writes open source software packages, like “punktiert” and “bRigid”, interfaces enabling digital forms of discrete compositions, based on his experience in teaching. His recent research investigates on the physical implications of digital logistics: cities designed by pure quantities, data and its architecture.
Rasa Navasaitytė (Architect, Designer, Co-founder of lab-eds) is an architect and designer. She is the founder of the design practice lab-eds. She teaches at the institute of urban design in Innsbruck and lectures digital techniques at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. Currently she works on her PhD-thesis titled: „Inside/Out – The seven diagrams of Ungers as an organizational matter“. Her project contributes to an architectural framework of ecological form and is acknowledged through several publications, awards and exhibitions.
Visit lab-eds: http://www.lab-eds.org/
This interview is a part of the Laka Perspectives series of interviews with exceptional people. Laka Perspectives is a project which aims to share and promote the ideas and success stories of people engaged in architecture and design focused on social impact. According to our schedules, the completion process of the material will be finished by the last week of April when we are starting to prepare the whole book for printing. The book will be available for purchase already this summer in print and digitally, and the funds raised will be fully used for the statutory activity of the Laka Foundation.
Contents of Laka Perspectives (approx. 200 pages, pocket-size A6, hardcover): over 15 interviews with experts such as Phil McCormick, Nathalie de Vries, Maria Aiolova, Thom Faulders, Daniel Koehler & Rasa Navasaityte, Tobias Wallisser, Doris Kim Sung and more! The small book is a source of inspiration in a nutshell: on innovation, future cities, green architecture, sustainable design, dreams and aspirations, smart materials, iconic buildings… and a little magic, too.