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    Echoes of a Distant, But Well-Known Echo

    By Smokety Mc Smoke Smoke
    Oct 24, '06 9:11 AM EST

    So, I should preface this post by stating that these are my own opinions, and they have nothing to do with consensus or what anyone else was thinking at last night's lecture at Yale School of Architecture. Last night, it was Tom Wiscombe's turn at the lecture podium at Hastings Hall. We all know him, we know his firm, so then we are all familar with his concept of emergence. I'll fast forward a little bit to the end of the lecture, when the redoubtable, whip-smart Emmanuel Petit asked Wiscombe if what he was really deploying was a style, as opposed to some type of design methodology rooted in systemic biology.

    Some thoughts about that latter concept ... Wiscombe started his lecture by showing clips of natural phenomena that typified the concept of emergence. While employing buzzwords like co-evolution and the like, as images of marauding packs of wolves and hyenas, schools of fish, and ant colonies danced on the screen thanks to his deployment of some inspiring Power Point fireworks, Wiscombe reminded us (via an overdetermined diagram) that the practice of emergence is based on notions of feedback and unpredictability. These are terms that he culled from the annals of systems theory, or so Wiscombe declares.

    And it was at that moment that I started shifting restlessly in my seat, for I began to watch an accomplished, well-respected desginer not only misinterpret some concepts of systems theory and cybernetics, but I noticed that these glaring misreadings were deployed just to justify some fancy parametrics. This was not a Greg Lynn, who uses parametric modelling to stake claims about rapid prototyping. Here was Wiscombe, misinterpreting ideas from evolutionary and systems biology, in service of an aesthetic. In other words, Wiscombe was saying that his practice looks to dragonfly wings, ant colonies, slime molds as organizational models because he thinks it's "cool." I may be being a bit unfair, as Wiscombe was trained in the natural sciences and did work at NASA. Again, this is not to say that Wiscombe is not an accomplished man and provocative designer, for he is certainly both. I am not sure why but perhaps he was careful in not sounding too wonky or rigorous in his lecture.

    But then, Wiscombe started playing curious games of historicism. Not only did he claim that Gothic architecture was more emergent than Renaissance architecture, a claim based on his observation that Gothic architecture was more tectonically sophisticated than its Renaissance inheritor (and this observation, in turn, was spurred by his own observation that pilasters had dubious structural qualities -- I think of pilasters as decorative elements, but i digress), but he made an arbitrary distinction between expressionist engineering and its more, computer-based and contemporary version. Thus for the former category, Wiscombe distinguished between an SNCF station by Santiago Calatrava, and Piano's/Rogers' Centre Pompidou. And here was a troubling distinction, for in Wiscombe's eyes, the Pompidou was not an example of high-tech work, but an emblem of something where technological elements were deployed for their expressive qualities. Troubling indeed, for, in the absence of making sweeping generalizations about historical precedents, one is hard pressed to lump a Calatrava bulding and the Centre Pompidou under the same rubric or category. These works were contrasted to the work of Frei Otto/Stefan Benhisch and Grimshaw -- and the implication was clear, Wiscombe was looking to style and formal moves to justify his historical observations, with nary a word behind the processes that underly the works of Frei Otto or Piano's/Rogers' works.

    There, towards the end, Wiscombe showed an image of Frei Otto's Munich Stadium, a worthwhile emblem of surface modeling that relied on drawing ability as well as technological insight. However, Wiscombe forgot to mention one fact: it was John Argyris, the Greek Aerospace Engineer and member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, who engaged in all the technical and engineering research for Frei Otto's stadium. As a former NASA employee, I thought that Wiscombe would talk about that.

    As Mark Wigley would state, here was a perfect Warholian fantasy ... the aphoristic echo of an echo.


    • don't know wiscombe (thanks for the link) but think it's great that you were able to simultaneously hear what he was saying and maintain your own critique of it. easy to dismiss someone once you've identified a misstep, but sounds like you let him follow through and were subsequently better able to identify your misgivings about what he was saying.

      i think your critique, by the way, sounds dead on. when you hear someone shift gears from exposition of a process to plugging it into a historic thread, your ears should prick up. there's a danger and a presumptuous-ness in trying to determine how one's own work fits into a historic context.

      Oct 24, 06 9:55 am  · 

      i am not familiar with wiscombe, but after reading your insights to the lecture and his concept of emergence and how he represents it in form, and then perusing his website i think i can say that it is a very interesting way of using an idea to inform his design. however, he shouldn't mistake his forms for process. the concept of emergence provided a framework for a jumping off point in the design, but natural processes are not still-lifes. his work represents these processes as insipration for form, but a true architecture of emergence would be a changing entitity that reacted to its surroundings, not as an abstract sculptural representation of the concept. even so it is a legitimate and interesting way of defining a form, but it would be too high-minded to think that the architecture itself is emergent.

      For example:
      He writes on his website concerning a bus stop-

      "Similar to a complex adaptive system in nature (CAS), this urban shelter system consists of a set of component parts which interact in a way to produce emergent effects, in this case, structural effects. The classic representational problem of bus shelter as icon in the city is set aside in favor of a systems approach, where issues of engineering and assembly are front-ended in the design process.

      The system is defined by a branching algorithm, where members grow according to a rule system governing extrusion length and angle. Members opportunistically reconnect at joints, creating a structural network which far surpasses the capabilities of any individual member. The resultant spaces between members become crystalline glass cells which provide shelter and assist structurally."

      to me this describes a design process mimicing a natural system, but the result is still a static bus stop stucture. it is not "opportunistic" at all from an operational standpoint.

      i do know that in landscape design i (we should) struggle in understanding what nature is, is not, or is concieved to be, and what systems are in play. it is very difficult to link design with a system effectively. often we abstarct them out as he does with emergence, but it should never be mistaken for the real thing. in fact a good design will let the system show itself and the design is a lens for focusing upon that system- see Hargreaves work, or that of richard haag, esp. bloedell reserve (moss garden) and gas works park in seattle.


      Oct 24, 06 7:22 pm  · 

      sounds like one hell of an evening, he hit on a lot of issues. I cannot help but feel that a lot of this design feels like a one-liner with lots of rhetoric and heavy computer power. Maybe it is the claims of ties to biology that worry me, and it may go back to the ethical issues that theories such as Norbert Wiener's bring up.
      from the site:EMERGENT sees adaptive, biological thinking as an imperative. do they really? what are the consequences of talking of digital as you would about the organic?

      Oct 24, 06 8:27 pm  · 
      vado retro

      what was emergent about gothic architecture was the emergence of a strong french monarchy starting here, suger!!!

      Oct 24, 06 10:58 pm  · 

      Yesterday in our structures class our prof (an engineer) said that the Pompidou was not high-tech but that the connections are purely expressive. It was a sidenote on his part, but it was said. Now I just wish that I was paying more attention...

      Oct 25, 06 1:53 am  · 

      great read.

      Oct 25, 06 6:52 am  · 

      see also:


      Oct 28, 06 12:22 pm  · 

      well, pruning & sorting information and supposed natural processes is nothing new, and that someone would make shortcuts, misinterpretat and tweak whatever it is that they use to justify their forms is also not that surprising - the question of style is justified (and obvious) as is the the other, maybe even more obvious, question of reasons & goals - why would anyone design this way? The most sophisticated processes give way to the most idiotic answers: personal preference & coolnes looming behind all.

      Somehow reminds me of a crappy lecture held in Finland by "the Future Systems guy" whose name I can't recall, where he actually went there and described why their buildings take their cues from "nature" (as seen by them) - "men have always liked natural forms" (accompanied obviously by images of curving breasts and whatnot) - the quetion: "why do your buildings then look like insects?" was never asked.

      Nov 1, 06 5:35 am  · 

      did you understand how tom wiscombe uses digital methods in his design methodology?

      Sep 21, 08 11:07 pm  · 

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