shameless boosterism…

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Des Moines Municipal Services Center, Neumann Monson (

A great evening last night as I got to host the AIA Iowa’s annual awards banquet and remind myself about just how good things get here.  The local NPR station is running a series this week on how surprising Iowa is to visitors–what, you didn’t know that Des Moines regularly gets ranked as the best city in the country for young professionals?  That Ames and Iowa City both regularly make top five and ten lists for best college towns in the country?  But to those of us who live here, these things are never surprising–the state is a great place to live and work, and the architecture community here isn’t so much small as it is intense.  And the work that gets done here is consistently good, inspired both by place and by the times.

This year’s Honor Award for Design went to Iowa City/Des Moines firm Neumann Monson for their Des Moines Municipal Services Building.  This is a classic Iowa project, a public facility, done on a municipal budget, with no dramatic forms or flying object but instead a simply conceived, well-diagrammed, and immaculately detailed volume that is full of good spaces for people.  It’s facade reminds me (of course) of Nervi’s Palazzo Lavoro, but it’s really just a nicely designed solar screen that Neumann Monson’s designers realized held the potential as a signature for the building and thus for the city.  Marlon Blackwell, the Awards program’s outside juror (also a great speaker and, thank goodness, a good sport about being called upon to spontaneously talk about the winning projects) described it as “resolute” at all three scales he found important–urban, architectural, and that of “the hand.”  Couldn’t agree more.

That building, though, was just one of a number of projects recognized for design excellence and sustainability.  Not to mention three national recognitions this year for Young Architect, CACE Executive, and a COTE award for BNIM’s Iowa Utilities Board, which has proven itself over the first two years of its life as a genuinely efficient building that is also an extraordinary place to work.  Only fitting, too, that BNIM’s Des Moines leader, Rod Kruse, won this year’s state medal of honor.

There is in all of these projects an ethic that may not be uniquely Iowan, but is nevertheless characteristic.  Kruse talked about the state’s architectural forefathers–Chick Herbert in particular–whose careers continue to set the tone here for practice based on a profoundly ethical approach, an attention to detail and to people, and a genuine sense of collaboration.  Walking in to the dinner last night, I realized that even as a peripheral member of the practice community, I knew most of the people in the room one way or another.  ISU is the only architecture program in the state, so our alumni make up a huge percentage of the practice here.  But it’s also true that the profession is profoundly engaged in what we do in Ames, sitting in on reviews, hiring our students, attending alumni meetings and being involved in all kinds of more casual ways.  It’s a great community with which to be involved, and I was honored to be present to help hand out recognitions to the most remarkable examples of the last year or two.

grasshopper, galapagos, and smoking laptops

VilloGrasshopperScreenshotMore and more presentations at architecture and engineering conferences look like this, these days–the use of parametric modeling, genetic algorithms, and feedback loops is promising to revolutionize the problem-solving end of the design endeavor.

For those readers not in the loop (see what I did there?) these programs generate and evaluate forms based on a defined set of parameters.  At its simplest, you can throw in a number of criteria for, say, a structural element, hit ‘run,’ and the programs will generate semi-random schemes, test them, rate them based on fitness for purpose, eliminate the under performers, and cross-fertilize the more successful schemes with one another to see if combined traits will perform more successfully.  It’s a neat technology transfer from nature, borrowing evolutionary biology to evaluate complex spatial and formal problems.  The results are often surprising, or at least far more nuanced than those of human labor–by running hundreds or thousands of iterations in a day, instead of the one or two that a designer might sketch out, the “design space,” or range of solutions on offer for consideration, is both broader and better informed.

This year’s IASS conference has, if anything, been the year of Galapagos, the genetic algorithm software that pushes and pulls the parameters in Grasshopper to produce formal results in Rhinoceros.   The Structural Morphology working group in particular has presented a half-dozen or so case studies in how these programs can be used to very quickly produce and evaluate designs for structural elements and systems, and the results are impressive–and a bit disappointing.  I’m interested in how process and product determine one another, often iteratively, often recursively–Nervi’s whole career can be seen as an evolutionary process in which four basic techniques get refined and tested in subtly varying circumstances, improving and becoming more efficient by small but crucial steps each time.  So I’m fascinated by Galapagos in particular, and truly excited to see what it’s capable of.  The first glimpse I had of this was in 2010, when I was a visiting faculty member at Northwestern, and one of SOM’s engineers came in to lecture on their use of proprietary genetic algorithm software to find ideal structural forms.  The potential is incredible.

But the potential is also still way out there.  One of the things that became clear as paper after paper presented the results of doctoral work in this area was that design, like biology, is pretty complicated.  The number of variables in determining the most fit shape even for a simple structural element are deceptively large.  Sure, there’s an ideal structural shape for a beam, say, but as any SCI-TECH alum knows, the cost of making an ideal shape might outweigh the cost of extra material in an almost ideal shape.  The labor market may further add costs to one material or one method of connection.  And the building type might suggest a further set of variables in how the shape integrates with other systems.  An open-web joist, for instance, might be better in a laboratory that’s heavily serviced by ductwork, since its permeable.  Or, as I found out in my days in practice, a dumb one-way concrete slab might work better for vibration control than any steel structure.  Quantifying all of that starts to increase the time required for all of these genetic algorithms to run, and pretty soon you run up against the limits of what your machine can do.  As one presenter put it, “laptops start smoking after a while.”

This became even more clear in some of the more ambitious projects to try applying Galapagos in particular.  The program seems to be very good at finding shapes or forms that involve two or three variables, but in the case of a double-skin facade, for example, or even a fairly simple braced frame, it becomes apparent that the “design space” is a lot larger than it might appear at first.  The double-skin facade project found a structurally efficient pattern, for example, but stopped short of even considering solar gain, ostensibly the rationale behind such a system in the first place.  And the braced frame project, while it produced a really elegant profile, didn’t go the extra mile to find out what would happen if that profile were now used to figure out the wind loading, firing off another round of digital selection.

Moore’s law being what it is, computing power will eventually catch up with these problems, and the days of hundreds or thousands of iterations will seem much like the days of drafting on an IBM 486 (remember watching the line draw from A to B slowly across the screen?  Mesmerizing).  But that power might very well run up against other limits that we don’t quite realize yet, and once again we’ll be left with intuition to tell us a) when to stop, and b) what to do with what the outputs tell us.  At the moment, these tools seem most useful as suggestions–things to look at as we contemplate a design space that’s more intuitive, not quite as large or refined, but more easily retrievable.  And that’s probably the takeaway–there are amazing things out there now, being played around with by clever grad students, that will in fact revolutionize our problem-solving abilities.  Like any tool, though, they’re not likely to take over the world, and they still seem best placed as adjuncts to an engaged, nimble mind.

Which, if anything, is even more promising.

IASS–nicholas goldsmith on shape finding vs. form finding  

Yesterday’s keynote by Nicholas Goldsmith of FTL was a barn-burner; one of the best statements about design and engineering as intellectual discipline I’ve heard and a clear statement about what our tools can do versus why we use those tools. Goldsmith’s argument is that conceptual design—the part concerned with getting the overall scheme laid out and devising a strategy for solving the problem at hand spatially and geometrically—can fall into two categories. We sometimes try to find a ‘shape,’ that is, a formal geometry or algorithm that suits…something, either a program arrangement, a static principle, or our own aesthetically trained eyes. This accounts for a good bit of the work architects do, certainly, and it often accounts for engineering on relatively simple projects. The results are fairly straightforward statements, either sculptural, functional, or static. In contrast to this, though, is how Goldsmith defines form finding. This, he says, relies on Kant’s idea that form suggests that “every part owes its presence to the agency of other parts.” (I haven’t found this exact quote yet, but believe me, I’m looking). In other words, whereas shape implied nothing more than a convenient geometry, form suggests both an organization and a purpose. Haeckel_SpumellariaAnd this, of course, brings up D’Arcy Thompson, whose 1913 book on evolutionary biology, On Growth and Form, is required reading. The whole gist of Thompson’s argument was that organisms self-organize to produce useful structures based on simple algorithms—a radiolarian, for instance, that builds near-perfect geodesic spheres that minimize the amount of silica needed, or a nautilus shell that reproduces the same growth ring again and again, scaling up as it goes, to produce a shell from the simplest of genetically encoded instructions. The idea of teleonomy—production without foresight—is, according to Goldsmith, a model for form finding, in other words, the production of a global order from local actions.

FTL’s outdoor performance space in Sun Valley, ID

FTL’s outdoor performance space in Sun Valley, ID

So. Want to design a nifty-looking tent structure? Draw whatever you want—even build it—and you’ll get a reasonable shape. Want the most efficient tent structure? Let form-finding software crunch an algorithm to do with minimum surfaces and minimizing tensile stresses for a few hours, and see what patterns emerge. Or, interested in designing a tower that sheds wind vortices? Let the local actions—wind spilling off of a skyscraper façade—churn for a while, feeding back into software that changes the building shape and the cladding components based on finding the maximum performance. This evolutionary process will gradually eliminate all but the super-efficient options, leaving you with something more intelligently derived than just a shape. Form finding, in other words, implies development. Iterations that gradually eliminate bad ideas (“choice under stress,” in the words of Charles Eames) lead eventually to good ones (“how-it-should-be-ness,” again in Eames’ language). We’ve done this as designers for decades using physical models, but the discipline of evolutionary design has only been recognizably simulated with digital programs and feedback software like Grasshopper and Rhinoceros. 7_55 And not only did Goldsmith name-check Kant, Thompson, and Eames in one lecture, he also cited my colleague Rob Whitehead’s work on Eero Saarinen, pointing out that the geometrically derived shell of Kresge Auditorium led to a predictably problematic structural and construction solution. His roof for TWA was similarly difficult to engineer and to build. It was only with Dulles, where feedback from engineers and contractors led to a shape that was based on production and performance, balanced against one another, where true form-finding happened. The discipline imposed by competing criteria force a truly responsive design process to filter out thousands of ideas that don’t work along one dimension or another, leading to sometimes surprising forms that do.   Beauty, in this scenario, emerges from the embedded intelligence of the solutions—we recognize something engaging because of how fluently it balances the problems to hand. Goldsmith closed with Bucky Fuller’s quote, that he never thought about beauty until the end of the process, when if the solution wasn’t beautiful he knew it couldn’t be right. I think you could take that a step further and say that even beautiful solutions are sometimes not quite right, but as we get used to greater and greater complexity I think our standards of beauty must surely evolve along with the problems we’re solving. The idea that designs emerge out of any sort of disciplined approach–material, structural, even geometrical–and that the more dimensions the approach is responsible toward, the richer the design is likely to be dovetails nicely with everything I’ve found out about Chicago building, or about Nervi.  Design is at its best when it’s an agile response to complex situations, and when it’s able to learn from interactions with the limits and suggestions those situations offer.  Goldsmith’s work–which even he admits can veer from shape- to form-finding in the course of a project–summarizes that nicely and shows how even though the tools have changed, the responsibility of the designer to the facts on the ground and to a rigorous testing of and learning from ideas put out into the world remains unchanged.   Great, great stuff. Especially after reminding ourselves in the morning that shapes in the right hands are also pretty engaging.

iass brasilia day one

In Brasilia this week for the annual conference of the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures. Last year IASS met in Poland, this year Brazil. Picking your organizations based on annual meeting locations probably isn’t acceptable professional judgment, but this one’s got a leg up on some others.

My colleague Rob Whitehead and I both presented yesterday—Rob on engineering vs. (or sometimes in alliance with) architecture in Saarinen’s shell designs, and me on Nervi’s cantiere—shipyard or jobsite? We were both part of a special afternoon session on historic shell structures, part of a working group that the IASS has to assess and raise awareness of the discipline’s history and the plight of some of its monuments. Our session had some great papers, including Cornell’s John Abel on their collection of string models from the late 19th century, designed to teach descriptive geometry and a fascinating precursor to hypar structures and ruled surfaces.

IMG_0565But with the hard work behind us, Rob and I set out this morning—before the heat kicked in—to go find some Niemeyer. And we did. Brasilia is a strange, forbidding place for the most part—a long series of freeway interchanges and landscapes that are barren and underthought. But the ministry district is fully landscaped, and the main Congress Hall is as lovely and iconic as you’d imagine. Crossing the streets to get to it? Not so great. Niemeyer’s genius was his willingness to think of architecture as sculpture—exactly what Rob and I try to beat out of our undergraduate and graduate students, so these are the guiltiest of pleasures. But despite their total structural illogic, his domes and towers and plazas are all technically accomplished, in that very little distracts you from the amazing play of equatorial daylight on their surfaces. It takes enormous knowledge to get a perfect concrete surface, and to figure out how to do it without expansion joints. Designing in a climate that is always 80-90° helps, I suppose, as does having the light that Brasilia does.

IMG_0534And there are moments of sheer technical brilliance, too. The Foreign ministry’s colonnade, while not quite in the Nervi category of inarguable static form, is a beautifully done rank of wedge-shaped concrete fins, board-formed and tapering to an elegant but constructable 2” tip. Aligned along Roberto Burle Marx’ garden, it’s an endlessly engaging dialogue of architecture and landscape. If only this took place along the main axis through the hotel sector, too…

OK, back to work. Plenaries today on composite materials, and FTL’s Nicholas Goldsmith on shape finding vs. form finding. Plenty to keep us indoors during the midday heat.



Sioux Falls

Many thanks to ISU alum Catherine Dekkenga and to Susie Wisnall of the South Dakota AIA for hosting me yesterday–keynoting the state’s AIA convention was a real honor and I enjoyed the day in Sioux Falls, another Midwestern city that has transformed itself into something amazing. Good crowd, good conversation afterwards, and a much-appreciated chance to catch up with some alums. Hope to be back soon…


ISU Premiere lecture online

Many thanks to Cameron Campbell, Brandon Fettes, and Mike Miller for recording last week’s lecture on Nervi and getting it online so quickly.  I appreciated the invitation to kick off our academic year with an overview of some of my work from the American Academy fellowship, and the chance to speak to a home crowd was a welcome one.  (The audio gets better after the much-appreciated but under-miked intro…and many thanks to Rob Whitehead for the timely lighting assist.  It does, in fact, take a village).




698–blacks farm contemporary

IMG_0380ARCH 698 is a catch-all course in our grad program that offers credit-free learning and an excuse to bring the entire program together occasionally for shared lectures, readings, etc.  I’m trying to see it as an opportunity, too, to curate a series of experiences that talk about what it means to practice here in the midwest–culturally, socially, ethically.

So, thanks to all-star GA Ben Kruse, today’s experience was a trip to Black’s Heritage Farm, a moderately historic seed production facility that now falls somewhere between use and disuse south of town.  My good friend, colleague, and fatabenefratelli (look it up!) Pete Goche has taken over one of the drying buildings–a machine pour le séchage–and turned it into a set of site-specific installations, some done with students, some on his own over the last couple of years.  The resonance between the agricultural buildings, the landscape beyond, and the intense sensory play that these installations produce is powerful stuff, and a solid but productively baffling introduction to the links between experience and geography that the midwest can do so well.r

IMG_0376All of Pete’s pieces are captivating, but the one that has generated the most buzz is on the upper floor of the drying building–a modestly arduous climb up a timber ladder required (and, one suspects, carefully incorporated into the experience) leads to a long, skinny, dark space, resonant with agricultural textures, a grainy scent, and, at the end, three inclined white metal panels framed–though not in any traditional way–by a pair of cables.  Pete turns off the lights, total blackout sets in, and for four or five minutes nothing happens.  And then, as your eyes adjust, something absolutely extraordinary takes place; the roof of the building appears, inverted and reversed, on the sloped screen.  “Ghostly” is too substantive a word; if you look too hard at the image, it disappears, and only seems fully there if your gaze is averted elsewhere.  More time passes, and the slow march of clouds across the sky takes place in front of you, in real time, in something beyond high definition.  It’s a simple principle–camera obscurae have been around for centuries, but the immediacy of the vision, the investment of time required for one’s pupils to adjust, the minor but important trouble of climbing into this space…all of it adds up to a moment that stubbornly resists the pace of everything outside.  It resists any form of recording–especially photography–too.

Welcome to the midwest, studenti.  Space and time are here in limitless quantities…

du sable park

ChicagoSpire-005-629x1024A nice summary today on the history of the Chicago Spire and its immediate neighbor, Du Sable Park, from the good folks at The Chicago Architecture Blog.  Is this another kick-Calatrava when he’s down post?  It is not, although this piece on NPR this morning did that pretty well.

No, this week we’re all about that little piece of green in front of the spire, the alluringly named Du Sable Park.  It’s a leftover bit of industrial land, originally the home of a lamp factory that left it full of thorium and too toxic for human occupation.  But it stands right at the mouth of the Chicago River–or, really, the constructed mouth of the river, since historically the junction between lake and River happened about another quarter-mile inland.

The site has been second only to Wolf Point in fantastic proposals, and it’s about to get a few more.  This semester’s Comprehensive Studio site in my section picked this over three other downtown sites to work on for the next 14 weeks–even after hearing about the fates that have befallen previous proposals.  The program is for a Contemporary Music Center–and while there were instantly comparisons to a certain Opera House in Sydney, getting to and from this particular site is going to be a challenge.  We head out there in a week to figure out whether it would be possible or not.

And the Spire?  Despite breathless news releases, still a very deep hole, of course…