Interview with Damjan Jovanovic, Städelschule Architecture Class:
Mind Your Tools
In abstract terms, design is an input-output system that transforms ideas and materials into something new, as determined by the specific designer in question and his or her context and tools. For a while now, the focus in design has not been solely on output anymore, concentrating increasingly on the system itself and the associated (design) process. The following projects show how different designers approach this issue.
Training in architecture at the Städelschule in Frankfurt/Main stretches back to 1817. Since then, renowned architects including Ernst May, Günter Bock, Sir Peter Cook and Ben van Berkel have taught classes and helped to develop the course. In 2006, the Städelschule Architecture Class (SAC) gained accreditation as a Masters course and now includes specialisations in “Advanced Architectural Design”, “Architecture and Aesthetic Practice”, “Architecture and Performative Design”, and “Architecture and Urban Design”. During this year’s Rundgang at the Städelschule in February 2016, the first year group of students presented the results of their “Games” project. This project examines the dependence of the tools’ design output used to create it. We spoke to one of the tutors, Damjan Jovanovic, about the ideas and aims of the project.
Where did the idea to take “games” as a topic for the first year group come from? In which different ways were games relevant to the project, and understood as what, for example as tool, method or inspiration?
This year the programme was conducted by Adil Bokhari and myself, under the supervision of Johan Bettum. The “games” topic is something of a long project, and it will continue in the next academic year as well. In general, the first year programme at SAC introduces students to disciplinary topics in architecture as well as design research and experiments to prepare them for the second thesis year. A central part of this process is the exploration of the role of drawing, which we see as forming the crux of architectural design.
In the widest sense, we work within and following Alberti’s paradigm that architects do not build, but create images of buildings. Drawing is a medium that has been incorporated in the meta-level of software. Software flattens the field of visual effects, enabling messy encounters between images of various origins, at the same time enabling full immersion into these images. In this sense, we are interested in the creation and understanding of architectural images, how they operate and what they engender. This is why we work with 3D printing, as we consider it to be a built drawing.
The important source was the fascination with the fact that when architects design, they spend most of their time in virtual worlds (meaning software), yet talk about the “real” as if it is completely unaffected by it. Software is still regarded as a passive medium, a copy of the real, a mere tool waiting to be used like pen and paper. There is a very outdated, commonsensical idea of separation between the real and the virtual, and we want our students to develop a more sophisticated thinking about what is at stake. Software is actually immersive and active, and the young generations live inside it. It is already there, in the space, and in so many ways, software has taken over the responsibilities of architecture. This is our starting point, this hyper-inflation of images, and we are deeply interested in design software, because we believe that the medium we use for design largely determines what can or can not be designed. As Friedrich Kittler wrote, “media determine our situation”, and I think this is true for architecture on so many levels.
Another connected starting point is a fundamental interest in aesthetics, and Jacques Rancière’s idea that aesthetics precedes politics. Architecture has a historical obligation to perpetuate the real, or more specifically, the look of the real. There is an overarching normative aesthetic paradigm, a consensus, that directs what a building should look like, and this is, in my opinion, another notion that is deeply embedded in the tools we use for design. The tools are a product of a specific aesthetic, political and economic need. The tools, in their turn, produce aesthetic genres within architecture. There are many architectural genres in operation today: the “solid serious German building”, the “white Japanese dissolved cube”, etc. All of these genres come in part from a tradition of design mediums (plans, sections, and diagrams), and from a certain material heritage. Software has been disruptive to the discipline because it is not material, or not material in that sense, and this is why it has produced another aesthetic tradition that is now mostly visible as the, by this time largely outdated genre called parametricism. Also, software is not, or is not exclusively plan- or section-based, but volumetric, and this is where a proliferation of continuous envelopes in “digital design” comes from. In that sense, we are interested in the look of the digital, and the aesthetic implications of what we call the “digital object”. We want to push the digital further, and to question what we already know.
We are working in response and, polemically, by questioning two traditions, one traditional material-based, that uses software for simulation, culminating in Building Information Modeling (BIM), and the other, supposedly digital-native, culminating in Grasshopper and other parametric tools. BIM is more a tool for project managers than for designers. In the end, BIM is Microsoft Excel, and we all know what a building designed in Excel looks like, so let’s not pretend that Excel is politically neutral. BIM comprises an ultimate catalogue of digitised real objects, which is why it cannot really be experimental, as it will always depend on what is already there, or on what is possible within the paradigm. Parametricism, on the other hand, presents us with a problem of total creative control, which is the reason why “natural” algorithms are so popular. By parametrising all the inputs into a directed graph, parametric software overtakes the design process to make it self-referential. This semiotic closed loop is the reason why every Grasshopper design looks more or less the same, and more importantly, this reinforces the ambition of total control, which is also politically problematic. This is why the first year studio challenged the aesthetic project of parametricism. There is a need for a post-computational, post-rationalistic, post-scientific approach. Simply, we need a looser idea of control, and another digital aesthetic. We think that this can only come from different kind of tools, which is why we are making our own software.
Why games? Because of their capacity to disrupt existing models of engagement, existing recipes for design. We were interested in the heritage of surrealist games, for example, as means of disestablishing the aesthetic and political implications of well-known models. In the surrealist games such as the exquisite corpse, any notion of systematic, rational form-making is erased. The games were derived as means of freeing the creative process of conscious control. It is a way of opening up the potentials. Unlike other software, computer games tend to problematise the notion of subjective agency through either exposing and putting into question the ability of a player, or by disturbing the mere notion of a goal. Play does not have to be goal-oriented, and although most games do have a goal (the “win” state), more and more the inherent specificity of experience leads to the player being content with merely “existing” within a game. Immersion does not depend on, and is more likely even disturbed by, direct calls for action towards reaching a goal. The notions of agency and authorship are thus perceived in a different manner, which enables loosening up the idea of control. The game-like design prototyping software that we made in the studio, Platform Sandbox, was based on these ideas. It looks like design software, yet has more in common with a computer game.
Most importantly, we wanted to explore the notion of play as a possible challenge to the overused and at this point probably meaningless notion of “research” in design studio environments. This became a major interest in pedagogical terms. The premise of the studio is that play is a notion that has to be constructed as a design condition, rather than being an effect of design. In other words, the studio is investigating play as part of design methodology, and not the notion of the playfulness of design. This is achieved primarily through conceptualising the design tools and insisting on producing custom-made, imprecise and messy software based on computer games’ logic. We believe that architecture is an inherently diverse discipline, achieving its disciplinary specificity through the plethora of mediations it deals with. It is precisely the bleeding of effects from one medium to another, from drawing to building to rendering to modeling that we want to explore.
The topic of games, as it pertains to design methodology, also refers to the various “games” of architecture itself: the figure-ground game, the inside-outside game, etc. This is profoundly influenced by the extended seminar that Jeff Kipnis gave at our school in May, 2015. The students discover that architectural history is a history of various formal and programmatic “games” that architects play across generations (borrowing, stealing, and quoting from the history or one another, working on similar problems and ideas, etc.), and in that sense, that architecture is a “game” with its own specific inside rules.
What was the intent behind the studio? What were the students supposed to learn?
In many ways, the only real knowledge you can get in an architectural school revolves around learning and understanding the representational conventions of architecture. Learning how to design a building usually involves finding architects that you like, and then trying to replicate how they work. In this process, many students feel compelled to forget everything they were interested in before they started learning architecture, all the cultural fascinations and all the vast visual knowledge that got them interested in architecture in the first place. All of that becomes replaced with unexamined sets of architectural conventions, after they start copying the styles and methods of people that they admire. While this is of course a necessary part of what it means to become educated, we feel that it might be interesting to keep a little of that initial innocence alive, and to promote some personal obsessions and interests as well. One such thing would clearly be an interest in games. We felt that new generations of students can use their existing vast experience with computer game worlds to pose crucial questions about the status of the discipline today. What can we learn from computer game designers and from games? Game designers spend a lot of time creating believable and fully detailed immersive worlds, which is in no way different than what architects do, except, they tend to do it better and with more care. One part of our interest was, how we can approach that level of engagement and immersion. So, the students were asked to look into their own visual fascinations and obsessions, and develop a personal working method that would produce images in their own style. The students were supposed to learn that there is no real prescription of how architecture should look like, and that every genre is produced through a very specific set of conditions, and that it produces very specific effects. In the end, the best students will produce their own set of conventions. The ultimate goal of the studio was to expose and problematise the notion of an architectural project as a work of fiction, with its own internal rules and narratives. A project is a fiction not because it is unbuilt, or because it lacks a “truth component”: it is a fiction because it has always to be constructed from zero, and because in this construction far too many assumptions are taken for granted and left unexamined, most importantly, assumptions on the subjectivity of an architect, and on the nature of architectural mediums and their effects. All of this is of course, a long project for every student involved, and it will take time before any of these ideas come into maturity.
How did the project evolve? What were the tasks, tools, methods, and theories the students had to deal with?
The project consisted of a whole academic year of experimentation. We envisioned the whole project as addressing two different types of modelling: in the first semester the students were exploring high-resolution drawing through the notion of developing a “large coherent whole”, where the modelling is subdivision-based. We used 3D scanning and various high-resolution modelling techniques to help every student develop her or his own unique style of drawing. In the second semester we looked into additive modelling of low-resolution parts, and this is where the Platform Sandbox software we developed helped enormously. In the end, the two approaches were combined to make a “difficult whole”.
The Platform Sandbox software was designed to resemble a standard, default way in which design software operates and especially, how it looks. Interaction is only possible in the main perspective view, thus preventing any design being done in either plan or section. This reinforces the importance of the volumetric diagram as a primary means of operation. The software does not allow creation of any primitives, it depends on messy chance interactions between a range of 5 to 10 architectural, usually found elements, which have been imported into a menu structure. Two forms of configuration are possible: physics-based collisions and intersections (Booleans). Each design session is constrained to 20 minutes. It is imprecise, messy, fast. The controls are more computer game-like than design software-like, as an almost choreographed use of mouse and keyboard is required. The “goal” is to create compositions, in one of four ranges of scale. The scale is simply defined by the number of elements in the scene: small for three to five, medium for five to 20, large for 20 to 50, and extra large for over 50 elements. This configuration enables the creation of a massive amount of models in a relatively short time span, and this speed and quantity enable the emergence of genres of compositions within the studio.
The results can be exported as geometry with textures to be further developed. The user interface design, and some parts of operation were customised by each student, which enabled us to conceptualise screenshots as already finished drawings in their own right. This was very important as part of the agenda of the studio, which is mainly devoted to the idea of experimental drawing as an avant-garde practice.
We have also developed an accompanying theoretical syllabus, where we focus on multiple topics: the aesthetics in contemporary practices, the heritage of formalism, contemporary discourse on objects, on computation, etc.
As far as I understand, the project puts emphasis on the input and the design of the design process itself rather than on the output. What are your thoughts on the fact that the tools and methods a designer or architect (more or less deliberately) chooses to use are as determining for the result as his or her individual creativity?
One of the main ideas is that there is no separation between what you call “input” and “output”, it is all already present in the medium. Designing the design tools is not a new idea, of course, but we were interested in examining and playing with the underlying, often hidden assumptions within this idea. What does it really mean to design a design process? How does software really influence the design outcome? Why it is always imperative to hide software and pretend it was never there? Is there specificity embedded in software, something that only software can do, and if yes, how would that look like? These are the kinds of questions that are very interesting to us. Taking control of software means taking control of control itself, and then playing with it. For me, that is the core of creativity. I want to emphasise that this has nothing to do with “inspiration”. One can only afford to be inspired if one has a command of a certain concept and works within its own internal logic. It is about looking deeply into the foundations and conditions of design, understanding what design is and where it comes from, and understanding how to act upon it. It is more about how to produce inspiration. Also, “individual creativity” is a term that we would never use lightly, as we work within the formalist tradition of “disciplinary specificity”. As Kipnis would say, “there is no originality, there is only re-origination”. Architecture is too old and too evolved as a discipline to allow having someone just winging it off the top of his head. Most of the drawings you see are actually reworks of the important projects that we studied. But that would be another, much longer discussion.
During the Rundgang in February 2016, posters and 3D-printed forms were on show as a preliminary result. They were abstract and I guess for the viewers quite far away from architecture, meaning the design of a building. How do you think architecture nevertheless profits from such an experimental approach? And how can the experimentation be translated into an architectural building in the end?
It is a question of a pedagogical model, first and foremost. In other words, what can and what should a post-graduate school do for the student? We are a school mainly interested in design, because we think that this is where major innovations come from. All of our students already have a degree, which means that they can be out there building already. Some, if not most were doing precisely that before they came to SAC. I think what distinguishes people that come here is largely a dissatisfaction with the state of architecture and the world, and they wish for something more or different. We provide the framework, and the expertise, so that they can later go out there in the world and make something new. We spoke previously about normative aesthetics, and the connection with politics. This is the core of the issue. Of course, the most obvious, commonsensical criticism of what we do would revolve around whether or not our projects are buildable. This question is, to borrow David Ruy’s expression, always a substitute for saying that something is not “realistic”. And by “realistic” people usually mean “well known”, or recognisable. This is a vicious circle of thinking that eventually produces most of the drab sameness that you can see outside in the world. It is a perfect recipe for having, if you excuse the term, a boring life. We want to operate on and influence that which people see as “realistic”, and in that sense, to push the boundaries of what is considered to be “real”. The best way to do so is through experimentation with design procedures, and by establishing new aesthetic genres within architecture.
In so many ways, the skill set of an architect is perfect for navigating that which Benjamin H. Bratton calls the “new normal” of collapse of the real and the virtual. The new reality presents us with a whole new ecology that requires its own gardeners, so to speak. This is one of the main reasons for exploring the cutting edge digital techniques of design. But this does not mean that we forget about buildings. We believe that design ideas will, and always do, inevitably leak into the built world, one way or the other, sooner or later. If we train the students to be unwaveringly vigilant in dealing with the problems of design, we know that they can change the way architecture looks in the long run.