The “A” and the “I” in CAD and BIM — Part 2
On making design software creative, topology and prototypes.
In the case shown in the image above, a fully grown flatworm grows two extra heads and rearranges its body, even placing its anus in the middle of its new three-headed body. Dr Mike Levin, who directed this experiment, came up with the “anatomical compiler”, which he uses to control morphological bioelectrical signal via software. It goes like this: A body map (diagram) is sketched in software, converted to a bioelectrical memory pattern, and sent to an alive animal that starts following the new transformed body map. This experiment is a clear example of the continuous connection between the Diagramatic and the Actual, or topology and geometry, and how we can use software to control the interaction between these two layers of reality.
In Deleuze’s map, geometry belongs to the Actual, and topology belongs to the Diagrammatic. So, what is a diagram? A diagram prescribes the distribution of matter, energy and information in time and space. In biology, scientists refer to diagrams as “body maps”. We, humans, have the vertebrate body map. As a set of instructions (a prescription), a vertebrate goes like this: a vertebra + limbs + head on one end + tail on the other end. With this recipe or prescription, we can obtain monkeys, giraffes, humans (a very tiny tail), snakes (no limbs), whales (two limbs, one big tail), etc. A diagram is a topological recipe. It is about connections, adjacency, positions rather than sizes and quantities.
Our current software produces dumb geometry. We can not ask a cube or a face from that cube next to it, what order it follows, if it can switch two positions back, or how well or poorly connected it is. All these are topological questions. These are the kind of questions a diagram is based on. We cannot query our geometric 3D models with this type of topological questions nowadays; neither can we do this with Grasshopper or Dynamo or any API from software based on geometrical principles. So, to have diagrammatic modelling in our software, we need topological principles. This year (2021), Robert Aish and Wassim Jabi presented the official version of Topologic, a technology that adds topological features to Grasshopper, Dynamo and Blender.
In the image above, we can see each cube coloured depending on its level of connectivity. Blue means the least connected space, and red is the most connected. We cannot do such a simple query with our software, but it would undoubtedly help when sketching. We could even jump from the classic bubble, bi-dimensional “diagrams” we use for arranging a program of activities or urban planning to three-dimensional graphs.
To exemplify better what Topologic does, let us use the PhD thesis work of Miguel Villegas-Ballestan that he shared just a couple of months ago. Please, check his YouTube presentation to see all the features he explores. I will touch on two of them here.
Villegas-Ballestan starts with a graph whose elements represent rooms in a single-family building. Each graph element contains a series of parameters like room name, room size, natural light access, natural ventilation access, wet or dry, privacy level, social room, practical room, adjacency and connection. Parallel to this graph file, another file contains 2D close curves representing the exact shapes of desired rooms or sketchy polylines acting as a location for other rooms. Both files lay in different software and connect via Topologic and Grasshopper. An intermediate series of scripts generate a 3D representation of the house.
What comes next is harvesting the advantages of having topological elements. Villegas-Ballestan can transform such topological elements into building parts using boolean conditions like these: surfaces facing outwards that are not facing a patio are solid walls; surfaces facing outwards facing a patio are metal fences. Or, surfaces facing upwards that don’t meet a patio are solid roofs; surfaces facing upwards that face a patio are empty.
The interior walls in Villegas-Ballestan house are impossible to model in our software. Sounds silly, but it is true. In the 12 years of Rhino experience that I have, I never asked that question! Geometrical software does not allow more than two faces to meet in a single edge. In technical terms, our software only allows for manifold geometry. The internal walls in this house would need three faces (the interior wall and the two floors of the adjacent rooms) sharing the same edge. Now, imagine an office tower made of single faces with boxes stacked on top of each other. Such a model would be non-manifold and not allowed. Tragically, this type of single-face model requires us to run environmental analyses!
Software for topology, populations and geometry
We have the “womb” in the example of the human map that we mentioned earlier. In the “womb,” there is feedback between the body map and the environment. The environment influences the prescriptions given by the diagrams. So far, we understand the diagram of the vertebrates can be embodied as giraffes, humans, whales, snakes. But if we considered only one of these species, their members are different between themselves. A giraffe can be taller and have a smaller ear than the giraffe next to it. They are both giraffes but are different from each other. It was the environment that afforded such differences.
So, a bunch of giraffes form a population. We can see the differences of each giraffe because we have other giraffes around to compare. We need a population of giraffes to understand their differences. And this is a legacy Deleuze gave us with his philosophy. Differences matter. We are not the same, even though we are all humans. It is also helpless trying to compare ourselves to ideals. I understand my differences by looking at the people around me rather than archiving a model’s body in a Youtube ad.
Those ideals are “types”. And as we mentioned earlier, Deleuze proposes to replace types or, as we architects called them, typologies for populations. Having typologies means that the group members are forced to resemble or become like the type. Having populations means that we recognise we belong together, but there are differences between the group members.
An outstanding and early architectural example is the series of projects developed at the Berlage’s Associative Design master unit led by Peter Trummer back in 2007. In their projects, diagrams are deployed, affording the environment as a morphological force generating a population of differentiated individuals. Please, take a look at one of them in the video below:
A vital aspect of the populational or the “prototypical” is based on ranges. There is a minimum or a maximum within which the entity is functional. If the entity is pushed beyond that range, it becomes something else. It doesn’t belong to its original population anymore because its original function is impossible. This entity has new and novel functions. In biology, this process is called speciation, and it is how new species are created. Animals in a population start diverging and diverging to the point they cannot mate with the members of their population.
If we want novelty, the prototypical is the place we want to explore design-wise. Indeed, we are not talking here about the “all differentiated” elements of Parametricism facades, with all windows having a different size. We can embed our scripts with ranges and modularisation right at the sketching phase.
Let us remember the importance of the Diagrammatic, Populational, and prototypical design to wrap this part up. A diagram is a well-posed problem. And as such, it can be “answered” in a myriad of ways, just like the vertebrate diagram is “answered” with multiple animal shapes. Let us take the “Serendipity Stair” that has become a staple of public buildings. The diagram behind this stair is “making people run into each other to facilitate serendipitous encounters and foster knowledge transference”. But instead of seeing tons of different stairs that answer this problem, we see the same wide stair over and over. The image below shows a functional range in place, a veritable population of stairs. As such, the stair is divided up to 5 times. If divided into six parts, the stair would be too narrow for people.