25 February 2010

If Termites Taught Architecture

Our studio met for the first time last Friday afternoon. The group included fourteen lucky lotto winners (eight Asians, six Americans, and only two females,) and a guy named Roland Snooks, Cecil Balmond’s assistant. Snooks is a scruffy youngish Australian, his black hair is meticulously styled—something like a peacock that just fought off a predator. Kokkugia, the name of his firm in New York, is according to his website " a reference to the desire to build the seemingly impossible," but perhaps more accurately represents the seeming impossibility of building for young firms. Like most architects under forty who teach at PennDesign (and many other architecture schools,) despite his talent and frequent publication, his designs have never been built. He has worked frequently with Balmond’s firm Arup on built projects.
Snooks’ first announcement was that Balmond would not be here for at least a week. His office is in London and it is rumored that he only comes to Penn five or six times a semester to meet with students. I have heard him lecture, but I have never met him personally. Roland's job is to run the studio from day to day. Despite Balmond's frequent absence, I wanted to be in his studio to explore non-linear design.
In the first meeting with Roland we spent six hours trying to define non-linear. While we never came up with an exact definition, it is perhaps the uncertainty of the process that provides its greatest potential over a traditional design method. From what I understand so far, non-linear design is a way of organizing a system without using a step by step process or a predefined hierarchy. Frequently used by nature to create incredibly complex systems, non-linear design imbeds simple repetitive patterns into individual agents whether they are cells or termites. In the case of termites, each insect has the ability to store a few rules that could be understood as “Go search for food”, “Go home” or “Build.” One termite alone would not produce anything significant using these rules, however, when the rules are followed by ten thousand termites, complex order emerges in the form of a ten foot tall mound with hundreds of feet of tunnels. Each termite is independently following the same rules—there is no individual architect to their home, yet the result is a structure that lasts for ten to fifteen years.
These instructions not only account for termite mounds, but also describe the growth of trees, the way-finding of honey bees and at a large scale--the organization of human cities. The beauty of non-linear design is that incredibly complex organisms can emerge from simple rules. The goal of the studio is to explore how, with the right rules, unexpected and successful results will emerge.
Balmond believes in the potential of non-linear design for architecture, despite the lack of precedents. Can you design a non-linear structural system for a building? Can you organize the function of the different rooms in a building non-linearly? I’m not sure, but we are going to try.

And Cecil Balmond is finally coming next week. Maybe.

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