March 5, 2012
Kansai International Airport, Bernard Tschumi Architects, 1988

Instantiation Grid (source)


One can safely assume an architect of any scale or skill-set—when subjected to a greater number of rules, codes, or constraints within which they, he or she must operate—will predictably respond with a well-worn groan. As if there weren’t enough roadblocks standing in the way of formalizing our respective visionary projects, another obstacle presents itself!


We associate rules with curtailment and control. Rather than dismiss constraints as non-starters that bind us, why can’t we use them to our advantage? What if we asked for more?


There is a rich history of work whose revolutionary outcome is directly linked to an intelligently crafted stack of self-imposed limitations. Georges Perec employed the strategy of lipogrammatic writing created by Ernest Vincent Wright to write the French novel, La Disparition (literally, ‘The Disappearance’), which was written entirely without using the letter ‘e’. John Cage rebelled against common notions of perception and musical instrumentation with his controversial oeuvre, 4’33”. Bernard Tschumi’s proposal for Kansai International Airport was intentionally bound by its linear organization and fixed programmatic constraints, but more radically by its own pursuit of a specific concept: the abstraction of architectural experience. These projects went beyond the assumed limitations that each creative endeavor entails, gleefully piled on more, and things quickly became weird and provocative.


Work that operates outside the conventional milieu depends on a reference point, and in this case the authority is the reference itself. Architecture has always been subject to laws, rules, and code. We should recognize the latent potential in these rules—both externally… more


Is deep, cumulative thought going out of fashion? The most powerful works of architecture are often the ones that focus on a singular idea, usually surfacing from a meditated bubble deep in the architect’s mind. The idea is gradually unpacked through a series of iterations culminating in a fleshed-out work able to stand robustly and eloquently on its own. As we speed, however, into a world of limitless options catalyzed by computer-enabled scripts—capable of combining sets of inputs at varying degrees and spitting out infinite potential outcomes—it’s worth investigating whether the race toward limitless choice is helpful to the design process or whether options are simply distracting.


Undoubtedly seductive, choice may represent awareness, democracy, freedom and quantity. In architectural practice, however, this outward-in methodology can cause distress over the opportunity cost of each rejected option, thereby alienating the final selection. Worse still, the false sense of confidence that comes from choosing the ‘best scheme’ over others can result in a design that is validated not by its own worth, but rather by comparative success over its lesser siblings.


The mishandling of this process perhaps represents a lack of confidence on the architect’s part. Taking a bleak outlook, one could conclude that the architect uses algorithm-generated options as a shield to deflect responsibility. After all, instead of relying on the architect’s subjective observations and analysis, it’s easy enough to say ‘the computer made it’. Who can argue with that? It is a point worth arguing, particularly as this methodology gains momentum in schools. Options provide us with more information, but when substituted for rigorous, focused exploration, they may in fact make us less intelligent.


Corbin Keech



Dalia Hamati


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