ATOMIC ARCHITECTURE
Chris Glasier & Craig Dykers


Few people are interested in the design of airplanes most are simply awestruck. But almost everyone, not surprisingly, has an opinion about buildings: how they look, how they leak and so on. These opinions are as diverse as the groups of people that come together to create a building, and for this reason the opinions never find a real home, their value is lost somewhere in the diversity. Architecture is not seen as a complete endeavor. Architects are often seen merely as arty types with bulky rolls of drawings next to their drawing boards rather than the creators of buildings; “Builders do that.”

Builders and designers may well understand their individual duties, but despite education and experience they are just as likely to be unaware of the entirety of creating a building as the rest of society. Creativity and building technology have evolved dramatically in recent decades yet the way a building comes to life, from the first idea to the placement of the light fixtures, has not. The process has of course been considered carefully by academics and professionals, but it remains fragmented. To avoid accidents in the fog, the participants in a building project, as well as society, have become polarized, developed their own languages, and have created codes and controls to constrain unpredictable events. Scores of draftsmen labor tediously over enigmatic drawings that resemble detailed legal descriptions. An atmosphere of confrontation and tedium has come to characterize the process of making contemporary ideas into successful contemporary buildings.

But imagine this.

A university museum was recently built; it owed its life to a single document. The document was compiled by more than 900 people from 12 countries, only a few ever met face to face. The document was never printed and rarely viewed. There was no drafting of sheets of technical drawings. There were no blatant codes or control systems and no management hierarchy. Yet everyone was well informed and the director was able to ensure the project ran smoothly. Coordination and quality assurance were inherent in the way the work was carried out and the building was therefore safe and well built.

The construction budget and the time schedules for design, purchasing and installation were not separated. Creativity was unrestrained and design time considerably shortened; the significant savings on interest payments were used to improve the project. Options were kept open as long as possible and unexpected costs were examined in relation to the whole project budget. Purchasing was direct and uncomplicated. Installation was made as simple as possible in deference to quality and efficiency. The museum was completed in a timely and profitable manner and everyone was paid for the work they actually did, while they were doing it.

More importantly, and beyond these practical considerations, the museum was considered by many to be a meaningful example of architecture. Values that formed the very early stages of the design did not disappear when the work became more complicated or when more persons became involved. Recorded values would remain throughout the life of the project document and of the building. Even after the building was completed it was possible for visitors to the museum or its staff to learn about the events that lead to the realization of the building itself. There was a feeling among everyone involved in the design and assembly of the project that the process could be applied to many tasks, from making a teapot to the building of a university museum.

Utopian as this scenario may sound, everything that allows it to take place exists today. Everyone would like their work to be more useful and important, and improvement in the quality of architecture is not an uncommon subject. But what is it about this scenario that separates it from the many theories that have circulated intending to improve the welfare of the built environment? What is the catalyst that can unify, modernize and reform architecture into the industry that creates rather than simply guiding buildings into an uncertain reality?

The people in the scenario shared a sense of cooperation; they had found the means to be compatible despite differing goals and points of view. To do this they shared a single document for the creation of the museum. They did not autonomously produce the conventional multiple sets of loosely related drawings and reports that normally dictate building practice. Instead of trying to simulate what they each imagined the building to be the document became a replica of the building itself. But this replica included more than objects and spatial descriptions or specifications of doorknobs or other building components. It also included everything that was necessary to bring the building to life, encompassing all aspects of the project both tangible and temporal. The ideas that formed the project, scheduling, purchasing details, when and how to assemble or align physical objects, as well as the objects themselves all could be found in the replica.

The document they created is not in paper form; instead it is more like computer code. Sitting in the background it can, on demand, interpret its information in a form pertinent to each of the tasks at hand. Like a net the document is flexible, catching all of the ideas required for it to be filled. It allows for intellectual values to be linked directly to the physical objects they engender and satisfies the aspirations of the owners, designers, users, legislators, manufacturers and builders, who are all vying to have their own set of standards recognized.

There are many popular planning and management ambitions in the world today. In architecture they tend to follow some kind of program or guideline that dictates people’s actions along a predetermined route that seems logical for the task. “When this is complete, do that. Don’t do things prematurely. When all the wall types are chosen, give them wall codes.” But these routes are based upon assumptions, averages of what may happen in a certain order for a certain task, and not on the actual events as they occur. The result is that people often feel coerced into doing work that at times seems arbitrary. The mechanics of compiling the document for the museum however, does not dictate predetermined tasks. Instead it exposes the source of the problems and encourages people to use their ingenuity and creativity to resolve difficulties wisely. It avoids the arbitrary and tenuous models of perfection that propose to eliminate the problems so commonplace in the world of building today -- breaking budgets, missing scheduled dates, poor workmanship, lack of responsiveness to various group’s needs, misunderstanding, confrontation and litigation. Only people, with appropriate support, can solve these problems.

As contemporary building practice faces an ever increasing number of controls, management systems, regulations and hierarchical structures, it is time to consider whether these represent too much of an overall burden on the creators of buildings. Can these methods really safeguard the combined set of values necessary to provide society with better quality, more adventurous, safer and cheaper buildings? Accountability need not be represented by lump sum competitive tendering and rigid control systems. Documentation need not be cumbersome, time consuming and expensive. Accountability and drafting are undoubtedly the barriers to seeing architects as the creators of buildings rather than just the creators of contract documents.

Compatibility, rather than dominant subjective judgments about singular solutions is a strong starting point for improving the built environment, and a single project document is a useful solution. But it is not enough to simply suggest its existence; the idea requires a working mechanism. Without this mechanism, the approach cannot actually function. In order for this scenario to work, the method must go beyond a plan or a technique. It must introduce a new device that can work along side people, supporting them in the creation of their shared document.

Information technology is probably the single most dynamic and widely accepted technology available to us today and its function is ideally suited to assisting larger groups of people to cooperate. But today the purpose of computing remains unclear; it rarely provides insight. Extending information technology to do work rather than just digitize, dazzle and entertain can gather together the various independent groups of a project, if it is a building they can be under the umbrella of architecture.

Using computer programs to make the device is necessary because they can easily match compatible physical criteria however voluminous, but they still cannot cope with the complexity of subjective judgment. As architecture functions today subjective judgment requires drawings or models to show design solutions, and this often induces too powerful an influence too early in the process. “If the thing is ugly, does it matter that its performance completely satisfies the brief?” Using the same base criteria and a slightly amended mix of values, ugly may transform into beautiful. The problem is the singularity of solutions, and the current difficulty of fully examining design options from the outset due to limitations on the time available to research and draw.

However, if information technology can place subjective judgment into a rational perspective and cope with the realities of architectural and industrial design, it can also support a new method of working. What is needed to realize this is not another computer management tool, it is instead something that puts tools to work. Such a digital device must be able to handle the physical complexity of producing sufficient options to make selection accountable.

This type of device needs a name and, as it is a digitized crossbreed of an organism and a mechanism, cybermachine seems appropriate. The role of the cybermachine is to support creativity in the design process, not dictate it. Quite simply, the cybermachine takes over the non-creative aspects of the manipulation of information, it can do work, the work that is currently carried out by people using various management tools. Since it must be versatile and communicate with other cybermachines, it is an application for popular Internet browsers. A resource is required to make the application work with minimum human intervention, and this has to be simple, universally available, cheap and dynamic. The resource is words, the words we used to define everything that makes a building. The application and the words work together, as a cybermachine that can produce anything that is necessary to understand the building, from all viewpoints.

A cybermachine can be defined as a “people support system” but most would probably see it as some form of electronic diary or notebook, with useful lists, pictures and devices, that change automatically as the work advances. Ultimately cybermachines link everything in the project together and provide multimedia reports from the trails of words that they receive. This collection of linked thoughts and choices produces a universal file of information related to the building. The file is dynamic, like the ideas that produce the building. Thoughts and conclusions relate to each other in an infinite range of associations. Like hypertext on the Internet, this file becomes a hyperfile. A hyperfile can be compiled remotely at a web site dedicated to individual projects. This web site provides the communications facility to bring together all information required in a project to enable the hyperfile to compile its words into an adaptable molecular structure: Atomic Architecture.


NEW IDENTITY

Building projects today are carried out in an awkward set of systems where duplication and inevitable distortion of information creates a litigious atmosphere, where there were once strong bonds of interconnected values. A simple procedural diagram following the first creative ideas to the final realization of a building shows many of the difficulties currently faced. 


Pyramid structures keep designers from the bulk of the design documentation because it is closer to the production staff drafting it. Project Managers separate users from the same documentation creating a sense of confrontation between the architects, users and eventually the builders. Contractors receive distorted translations from Project Managers. They have their own hierarchy distributing the bid set, in parts, to various suppliers and installers, who create their own set of documentation to build from.

By rearranging the conventional organization, the hyperfile becomes the central document receiving information from all parties related to the entities that they are responsible for. 


This convergence of information requires no human coordination; it is inherent in the way work is executed. The project team has the full opportunity to become confident, aware and direct, as the hyperfile lays things out as they are, not as people may perceive them to be; control over the timing of activities required by the entities becomes rational, accountable and resourceful. Planning and work become difficult to separate. Scheduling the start of the design of a roof is taking the first step on the trail that identifies its component parts (and the component parts define the scope of the task). Users of the building, its designers and those that assemble it would have direct access to the same information.

The Boeing Company took a similar approach to cooperative design that enabled it to build the world’s largest passenger plane, the now famous 777. They united 238 design-build teams responsible for specific products using 2200 computer terminals. An emphasis upon transparency allowed the administration, designers and builders to have complete and ongoing access to information. In planning, 40% of the program was allotted to setting-up the process, compared to less than 10% for most building projects. The end result was that the plane was built to a tolerance of 0.03 millimeters, a fantastically small dimension compared to the centimeters of tolerance normally described in building construction. Not only was the result of a high quality, the need for prototypes and the cost of construction was greatly minimized.

Most modern industries can look back into history for their identity, aerospace to the Wright brothers, automobiles to Ford, railways to Stevenson and so on. But building is so diverse and commonplace that the arrival of the modern building industry cannot be flagged by any meaningful event. Building will never attract the same charisma as aerospace, but it can at least adopt the same level of awareness and cooperation. Boeing had the advantage of being one company, whereas the building industry has the disadvantage of growing up from disparate professionals, regulators, suppliers and building trades. A hyperfile therefore provides a core, an attractor, bringing together their collective knowledge in mutually beneficial cooperation. A hyperfile can be for everyone involved in a project, and may well remain active until the building is finally demolished.

A hyperfile not only represents the whole project, but also gives the makers of it a single identity. As more teams prepare more hyperfiles, their activities represent a collective identity: an industry. The creative process can now acknowledge the process of building, as opposed to a simulation of the anticipated end result. It identifies real components and the actual methods to assemble them. So what is the name of this industry? People refer to the buildings in a town, city or country as its architecture, so this seems a pretty good word. “If you want an airplane, go to the aerospace industry, if you want a building go to the architecture industry.” This does not denigrate the status of architects; rather the hyperfile restores the respect and directness that has produced great buildings in the past.

Objects and entities

A significant number of researchers around the world are promoting three-dimensional computer models made from “information rich objects” like cans of soup with their ingredients and barcode labels. But isn’t such a model only the end result of design? Can the model be asked why it looks the way it does? Where are all those hundreds of ideas that were conceived to make it, how does the designer know they are still intact?

Objects are too precise, too demanding; objects have dimensions. Dimensions are normally fixed as early as possible in the design process for the sake of setting a foundation for the work. But they should really be left until as late as possible because like subjective judgment they are too positive, curtailing the opportunity to fully examine options. By first defining the ideas and then their relationships and attributes, dimensional options become apparent. This is not done arbitrarily, but by the real physical constraints on the project and the actual properties of the components that will be assembled to make it. Objects are rarely the result of a singular idea, however they and their attributes have names, so these can be used to represent each of the ideas that are required to define them. Stripped of their qualities and relations, objects are better defined as entities, as this relates simply to their existence. Less than a thousand unique words are required to describe 80% of the entities and the attributes that turn them into the objects to form the building. Beam, building, ceiling, column, door, finish, floor, foundation, wall, window, roof, and space cover the basic elements; cement, clay, glass, gypsum, fabric, metal, paper, paint, plastic, sand, steel, stone, wood, water, and light are the basic materials, and so on. A device can use these words to automatically find lists of related words. Words are the fuel for this cybermachine.

Creativity and effort

But before making the cybermachine, the major factor to recognize is the differing characteristics between creativity and pure effort employed in the process of design, to define what the machine can do and what people have to do. While drawings or documents can be counted, it is not sufficient to use just arithmetic to assess quality and completeness of content as the design progresses.

Planning schedules for buildings are currently made using simple diagrams such as bar charts, but are they really useful? Architects use a bar chart to tell them when to get paid; architects are paid for their work after certain milestones have been met. There is one inherent problem with this; the simple way one gets paid does not reflect the complexity of work being done. Time and activity are distorted when seen as a summary. Time must be better appreciated to understand scheduling. For example, there are many ways to imagine the sun in the sky. Commonly it is seen as a glowing golden disc. 

Yet, in the manner of a time-lapse photograph, the sun can also be seen as a glowing arc across the sky. Time flows; it does not advance in a series of leaps. Time is commonly experienced in discreet moments, yet when seen together these moments create an elaborate and flexible geometry. But when work is separated into discreet summaries, the same does not happen naturally. It is necessary to provide a framework where creative tasks can be distributed, more accurately portraying what is to be achieved, allowing scheduling to be more flowing and adaptive.

Arising from the studies of how to make a cybermachine a new diagram, an iconograph, has been made portraying the interrelationship between creativity and pure effort, replacing the solidified nature of the familiar scope of services that contracts are currently based upon.


The diagram helps differentiate between what machines are able to do and what only people can do. It is an enhanced bar chart that has been rotated so the viewer is looking back over time to see how to achieve the result. The traditional bar chart is generally thought of as a section through time and a summary of events. The iconograph can be seen as an enhanced plan view of a bar chart, illuminating the issues that are currently summarized by conventional charts.

Tasks are arranged in consideration of their significance as a part of a whole, rather than linked in sequence. For example, with an hourglass it is not important which grains of sand fall first, only that they all fall through within the prescribed time; in many respects this is analogous to the design process. As the entities can be established reasonably accurately at the start of the design of a building, the metaphor provides a guide for how to monitor progress and cope with the unpredictability of creativity.

The iconograph shows the setting up period for the project, studies and design development as circles floating over a histogram mapping the compilation of the hyperfile. The circles are merely the shape of the design phase bars seen from above and better relate to the complexity of design than a Spartan line. The circles grow from smaller to larger, the first containing fewer but more important ideas, the larger containing the many smaller ideas that decide the details. Compilation of the hyperfile starts from the moment the project is identified. The histogram is the record of the number of options selected and to be selected resulting from both creative achievement and measurable effort. It is an enhanced representation of the conventional production phase of a project that grows in size as definable work is completed.

The circles and histogram are derived from the data in the cybermachine. The circles distort when the principal planned stages of the design process are altered, and the histogram overlays actual versus planned work effort. 

The control of the link between creativity and effort relies on human assessment, providing the opportunity to use ingenuity to overcome problems. Reacting to changing conditions, the iconograph functions in a more apparent way than conventional milestone based scheduling. In a common occurrence, what happens if the milestone date is not achievable? The usual option is to blame someone else or reduce the scope of work and pass off the responsibility. With the iconograph, time and activities are seen in a more fluid context. There are no imposed systems for dependencies and resource leveling. Instead, the diagram is supported with a planner and a diary, automatically monitoring progress from the work itself, and has simple devices for the easy reallocation of future work. Individual tasks are not allocated specific time periods; time periods are allocated for groups of tasks and events: “How much work can be completed within the next two weeks, considering there will be four half day meetings, and John is off with the flu?” The incentive to complete tasks is centered on professionalism, transparency and peer pressure. Those who acknowledge the partnership between creative working and creative design will be rewarded. The focus is not on milestone dates, but on the length of the lists of things to do, or at director level, how badly the circles and histogram in the iconograph have distorted; “Is the iconograph in good shape?” The aesthetic shape of the diagram is essential. As opposed to the bar chart, distortions are readily apparent in the obvious physical changes of the individual elements of the chart.

Creating a cybermachine


In 1945 Vannevar Bush envisioned a machine, his memex. Its function was based on the associative nature of thinking. He wrote: "The human mind ... operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain." While Bush is generally credited with being the forefather of “hypertext”, his ideas for storing and reusing the links with others to form a new document appear not to have been taken up. He set down the principles and current computer technology can now be used to make a machine for work.

Yet nobody from the world of computers has really looked at the process of design, and nobody from the design world has told the computer people what is really needed. The result: one group of people busy promoting products for work without the opportunity to understand the real needs; the other, having invested heavily in education, technology and experience, are enamored with computer aided drafting, without realizing that it is a solution to a problem that need not exist.

The cybermachine captures ideas as words representing the entities they engender and transforms them into images of related options within the context of the overall developing design. Images need not be limited to photo-realistic renderings or animation as are commonly considered illustrative, but can also be available in any other multimedia format such as text, simple arrow diagrams, wire models, sound and so forth. Capturing ideas is basically very simple. “We want a building; buildings have rooms; rooms have doors.” Building-room-door. Here are three ideas in a sequence that establishes their relationships. At the end of the “trail” the point is reached where transformation of one part of the original idea into a description of an object is possible: door-wood-900mm wide-2100mm high. Clearly, the big idea of a building would require many trails, but most would be amended copies of their siblings, and many trails would spawn many objects. The main point is that each trail is simple, any complexity being handled by the cybermachine. Each object has a genealogy, and the machine uses this data to interpret the results of groupings as text, numbers or images. Making the mechanism to capture ideas rather than solely rendering objects is trickier, but the basic resource already exists; words can be used to represent the ideas. Hypertext allows words to be automated and scripts allow each word to both document and advance the process. With these handy pieces of technology the information needed to generate reports can be selected as text or images.

The cybermachine and the diagram it generates can manage the uncertainty of the timing of ideas, subjective judgment, multiple interactions of ideas and the voluminous data that ensues, but its real strength is in the interpretation of complex relationships and options. Currently to overcome complexity information is forced into summaries that can be easily digested, but in doing so a different set of complexities are introduced that need not exist. A good example of this “extra complexity” is the traditional set of plans, sections and elevations. Here information about a single subject is scattered. Not only that, but its scattered information becomes muddled with other scattered information about other subjects. On each drawing or part of a drawing, there is both too little information to be directly useful and too much information that is irrelevant to the task at hand.

For the most part drawings are used today to set out geometry. Their use as descriptions of the assembly of parts no longer has the same validity as was conceived when drafting developed in the last several hundred years. Due to the variety of options and the detailed descriptions of contemporary techniques, describing industrialized products and assemblies cannot easily be done on two-dimensional finite sheets of paper. Whatever production manual or control system is used to alleviate this complexity, the development of separate documents such as specifications, notes and faxes still must be used to guide manufacturers and so on in their tasks. And of course the manufacturers and assembly teams will have their own set of documentation that, because of a unidirectional method of working, is rarely used to instruct the designers. Dimensions and guidelines are often fixed very early in the process to create a foundation for the design team and this causes inflexibility related to possible future ideas. The dimensions suffer further since they are limited to small portions of the building spread across many sheets; miscommunication results in mishandling of the design.

On the other hand, capturing ideas allows the design process to remain fluid until all the ideas for the entities that will form the building have been converted into ideas for objects with physical properties. This may sound extreme; but working through the trails, establishing relationships, builds a net, something that is easy to manipulate when empty but remarkably rigid when fully loaded. In reality, the net is like a huge algebraic equation just waiting for constants to perform its calculations.

And of course it is possible to cheat by applying proxy values or functions to gain an idea of what the end product might look like at anytime.

The net is finite in size, just like a building site, or a budget, or maximum permissible development calculation. The objects eventually placed in the net will have definite forms and sizes. As the attributes of the objects are defined, the net begins to take up a shape and the options become less and less. All the objects keep a record of the trails of their relationships, something the information rich objects being examined by researchers today cannot have, because they have to be selected first.

These records reside in the project’s hyperfile at a dedicated project web site. The web site is a workplace and store. Cybermachines connect to the site to manipulate their own information in conjunction with what is in the store. The process is like a continuous meeting where people come and go, make and examine presentations, leave notes and messages, and give and receive instructions. The “presentations” and “instructions” are collected by and retrieved from the hyperfile, there is no hierarchy. The web site provides the income to support the enabling system and the management to support the project. The cost of the web site cannot be small, but in relation to fees paid to people to reiterate their experience, it is minimal. And since management is the monitoring of events in relation to an established reference, this is a task more suited to machines; people are far better directors than they are managers.

Architects use cybermachines to select items from lists of words they initially obtained from the web site. They can then send the selected items back to the web site as composite strings defining relationships and attributes. This allows employers, consultants, manufacturers and other information providers to see what is required for the project and supply the pertinent information; and of course vice versa. The web site maintains a store of words representing collective experience as well as the store of strings of words that relate to the project. New words may be added by each of the compilers, allowing the whole system to evolve.

The cybermachine that supports the compilation of the hyperfile emulates nature; it is cellular and wasteful. As with DNA, each object it identifies carries with it its whole history; for example the name of the project itself will be attached to each of the thousands of objects, since everything belongs to it. But because of this it is reliable and persistent, and will not collapse when amendments are made. Fortunately, modern compression technology makes this wastefulness easily tolerable. This cybermachine is as versatile as nature because it identifies the smallest parts, the architectural atoms, encouraging the design to evolve from their interaction within the physical and human imposed constraints. The use of such “bio-electronic” devices has been promoted by many people, including Kevin Kelly, who has stated in his book, Out of Control, “The world of the made will soon be like the world of the born: autonomous, adaptable, and creative, but, consequently, out of control.”

While there is an undoubted benefit in not having to control every action of the machine, it is essential to have the ability to harvest the results. Recording all of the thought processes that go into the project, the hyperfile contains hypertext links to reference documents, such as standard specifications, regulations and codes of practice. Users can ask questions and get pertinent answers, without having to search through such gigantic tomes. The hyperfile is made up of everyday words, so there is no requirement for any further classification. Revision results in an immediate report of the implications, and “versioning” systems would not be needed, as the hyperfile is the result of the convergence of information; it is always the current unique version.

DYNAMIC ACCOUNTABILITY

If architecture is to evolve, people need to understand and accept that they have to reposition themselves to be able to take advantage of technological advances, just as society did in the Industrial Revolution. In relation to architecture, this hinges on distinguishing creativity from pure effort and capturing ideas in order to enable machines to interpret the interaction of ideas and options. Cybermachines and hyperfiles not only relate to everyday work, but also to what must now be taught in our schools and universities, and to society’s basic attitude toward using information technology to rationalize demonstrations of accountability.

Competition

Productive ideas relate to a single entity or assembly of entities, things that exist, regardless of whether they have qualities and relations. Entities can be defined very early in the design process, most buildings have roofs, doors and toilet roll holders, and this is the start of dismantling the stranglehold of static competition, most often represented by fixed price competitive tendering.


Alvin Toffler wrote, “Static competition may produce the thoroughbred racehorse, but it would never produce the automobile.”

Over the years since World War II, more and more layers of managers, coordinators and other consultants have been inserted into building practice in the name of accountability. These people rely on information produced by others and produce little that is new. Moreover, their activities are so complicated with summaries of summaries, duplication, and distortion in the strange procedures for converting drawings into schedules and schedules back into different drawings and so on, that the building owner, exasperated, most often opts for a lump sum fixed price tender. There is currently nothing able enough to support a more versatile approach. How much this puts on the cost of building is difficult to say. Putting aside the cost of fees and photocopying, and risk assessments and compounding margins, financing costs must increase significantly, merely because of the time it takes to communicate and produce all the documents needed for such accountability. Perhaps more significantly, these procedures cut off the architects from the people who really know about technical details, costs and competition: the manufacturers of building components, and the people who install them.

The words used for entities in the cybermachine can attract all those people normally required or invited to participate in a project. While these will include all kinds of information providers, governments, professional bodies and so on, building product manufacturers provide the best example to illustrate the principles, particularly as their designs and costs have a very strong influence on the success of projects. The invitation can be individual or global. The terms of the invitation are simple. Register the product at the project web site, using the same lists of words that architects use to design. If there is no word on the lists to properly describe an aspect of the product, add a new word. If the product can be customized, define the constraints imposed by the materials and machinery. Provide a three-dimensional model, complete with design origins and constraints, manufacturing tolerances and animation if there are moving parts, that can be scaled and viewed in specified ways, but not edited. To avoid inundation, the inquirer has a list of the possible items to be shown for each review, for example, form, cost, or country or state of origin. The selection can be limited at first and become more detailed as the options are reduced.

Accountability is inherent in the process. Since both inquirer and provider are free to add new words, the market evolves. The actual components can be incorporated into the design at the earliest stage and can also be changed up until the time of purchase, since the network of relationships and attributes will dictate whether or not the selection will work, physically and financially. In line with many of the more successful supermarkets, quality will be a part of the competition, because registration provides links to related standards and specifications, like the labels on the cans of soup. As in any free market, errant members will be exposed. In time this process can be fully automated and optionally anonymous. Both technical and cost information can be exchanged at anytime, a dynamic market. Competition will be vigorous but should be fair since the cost of building components would fall because the need for advertising and other peripheral activities will be minimal.

Regulations

Beyond financial accountability building and safety regulations exert a very significant influence on the design of buildings. Why should these institutions be excluded from the free market economy? Where is their accountability? How many architects understand where all these regulations came from, on what basis were the decisions made? Why do Hackney carriages (London taxis) not carry the bale of straw still required by the regulations?

Creativity necessitates degrees of unpredictability. Yet for architecture there is a need to impose degrees of restraint upon the unpredictable forces that create it. Layers of order are instituted that organize the incalculable in our daily lives. Society remains in constant flux between acceptance of chaos and the need for predictability, between intuition and planning. There are a growing number of relationships and challenges with fewer simple methods to understand the consequences. Values of quality and safety are enveloped in task checklists. The causes of problems are unclear and there is a greater reliance upon obvious solutions such as regulatory, hierarchical organizations, to avoid the effort and cost of really solving problems.

Few groups have the financial resources or political clout to implement alternative approaches, simulations or tests for regulations, but there are some examples. In the 1980’s, Foster Associates commissioned a complete scale model of the North shore of Hong Kong Island, and a wind tunnel test to simulate a typhoon. They were questioning the validity of a stringent regulation that had a dramatic affect on the appearance and cost of a curtain wall. This unsolicited test resulted in the rewriting of the relevant code. In Malmo, Sweden the government is planning an international building exposition in 2000 where individual sites may be given the ability to work under any national building code they see fit. It is believed the various projects will not have significant differences in levels of safety or performance. If this extravagant experiment becomes reality it would also be remarkable if they also plan to allow one building to be built without reference to any regulations at all.

Since everyone seems to agree that better competence and performance is good, there is little conceptual discussion of the need to institutionalize and regulate. Various groups around the world are currently initiating models to eliminate difficulties in planning the design and building process, using dependency tables and process diagrams to create so called optimized program models. But these do not account for the infinite nature of the evolution of design. Even the best and most iterative of these models falls apart when the number of possibilities increases beyond the capacity of the matrix and its programmers. In the middle of this past century, the twentieth century, B.F. Skinner put forward his theories of Behaviorism and this was followed by the American Structuralism movement; an institution that still organizes certain aspects of society today. The current state of control maximizes task-oriented devices and repeated behavior to produce an intended result. International standards organizations provide rules and forms to ensure consistency, under the banner of quality assurance, but in this sense the controls only serve to ensure a predicted result, not a creative one.

Handrails often provide anecdotal evidence of the difficulty of regulating professionalism and determining values. A handrail responds to a myriad of functions but has very few elements. It represents safety yet has a highly ornamental character. It seems that there should be a straightforward way to decide what a handrail should look like or how it should perform. Yet codes often vary or are not specific in some situations. Inspectors or safety officials use their best judgment to approve various conditions, yet these decisions are easily debatable.

In 1994 Snohetta completed the cultural centerpiece for the Winter Olympics, the Lillehammer Olympic Art Gallery. On this project it was felt unnecessary to have a handrail on both sides of a stair traversing a sculptural garden fountain, the slope and vertical drop being very minimal. The issue was discussed at length with the local safety officials but the result of the discussions required that a rail be placed on the stair. After some time the drawings were reissued to the safety department, labeling the stair as a piece of sculpture. Since the stair became artwork, the rail was no longer needed. Society tends to instill different levels of value to fine art.

Recently on the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, another Snohetta project, one architect questioned another about a problem on-site. There were no strict or universal-building codes to relate to for this project, so the parties agreed to use a set of western national standards as a contractual basis for the work. A question arose concerning the required height for a rail on the inside open edge of a wrap-around stair. The fire code states that this should be guardrail height, which is slightly higher than handrail height. Other codes suggest that in this circumstance, different from a standard balcony or landing, the excess height is not required. The standoff reached a peak when the handbook for the fire code stated that no supporting data could be given for the actual safety of the required guardrail height on the open side of a stair. The determination was made based upon keeping a 95th percentile Caucasian male from falling over it. Yet most building codes consider guardrail height for a handrail unsafe when navigating a stair run, especially during a panic situation. Also handrail design is affected by the differing situations of going down or up a staircase, the height of the risers and so on. And in this case, the average height of an Egyptian is likely to be different from that of a Swede or someone from the Caucuses, making a guardrail height handrail even more unacceptable. What should be done? New found simulation technology might have demonstrated the most appropriate compromise.

In America, the fire-fighting fan was “discovered” from a simulation test, surprising those who have been taught only to “fan the flames” to get the barbecue going. Computer generated simulation has real potential to overcome the problems with the cumbersome process of bureaucracy, particularly with regard to safety. How many new solutions have been missed while avoiding problems? If safety had a commercial value, the pace of innovation would undoubtedly quicken. This would require a simulation that complied with current regulations, and legislation passed requiring all designs to undergo the simulation test. The test incorporates a rating system that indicates levels of improvement over the minimum standards. Safety acquires a commercial value – “Prestige Offices to Rent - air conditioned and featuring level 3 safety standards.” Another dimension is added to the troublesome subject of the company image.

Methods


The seemingly outrageous can have surprisingly sane results. On another Snohetta project, the Norwegian Embassy in Germany, one facade of the building is composed of a single monolithic stone slab 44 feet high, 15 feet wide and 2.5 feet thick, weighing 120 tons. The stone was quarried in Norway and sent by boat to Berlin where it was hoisted onto the site and gingerly dropped into position. The stone has no mechanical fasteners and is held in place primarily by inertia and a few stainless steel dowels. There are two interesting aspects to this undertaking. Firstly, no one believed that the stone could be easily quarried and placed, and if it could it would be horrendously expensive. Secondly it was considered that the standard organization of project management could contain the planning of the exercise. Both assumptions turned out to be wrong. It took three persons two days to excavate the stone from the ground. The final cost of the wall including transportation was less than that of a planar glass system of the same size. In order to alleviate fears related to the extremity of the venture the normal organization had to be withdrawn. Designers were given direct access by the Project Manager to the quarry masons, artists, transportation companies and safety officials. Drawings and information were shared unilaterally and an atmosphere of cooperation characterized the entire period of designing, planning and moving the stone.

The variety and breadth of building practice used throughout the world is impressive. However most of us, especially younger people entering the world of architecture or building, think that the way building projects are realized here and now is the only way the process has ever been enacted. It is believed that if there are any improvements in the process, they are probably only minor adjustments to the common and good method. Historical notions of building are generally limited to mistaken beliefs such as slave labor building pyramids.

Detailed understanding of past practices is rarely considered in architectural education and is often founded in myth. Daniel Boorstin has given us some insight into the reality of the past in his book, The Creators. Boorstin notes that the Greeks are believed to have posted instructions to contractors and workers outside of construction sites. They are known to have carved stone monuments in public plazas serving as rich sources of planning and construction information for the citizens of the state and for future generations. These stones would include requests for tenders by contractors or the length of the working day on site. Surviving stones are still used by historians to better understand structures the ancients created. It is surprising to discover the depth of knowledge ancient builders used to plan, design and construct, and how varied their methods were from what we now consider sacred and historical.

Recently, as modernist theories of architecture and their tributaries have grown, considerable attention is being paid to the past one hundred years of development. It is now accepted that our current state of building practice is a conglomerate of post-industrial era technology, catapulted into existence as a result of developments during and just after World War II. Contemporary industrial design techniques transformed architectural practice. Today the term building material is generally accepted to mean building product although the two are not the same. The primary force governing a building or product design in the recent past was said to be the relationships between the various parties involved in completing and using the work; it is now said that the greatest influence upon design is the availability and use of various industrialized products.

While the design focus is turning to the performance and use of these products, the managerial focus remains with activities. The measure of project managers is their ability to meet milestone dates. The relationship between the products and the project manager is too remote to engender a real understanding between members of the project team, and opportunities to use creativity to overcome problems are often lost as lack of confidence meets confrontation masquerading as control. The cause of this type of difficulty is often said to be lack of information. Information is promoted as the cure-all, but few quite rightly understand why.

For example, there is a common misconception that the wealth of new technology available, in particular the Internet, exists solely to provide more information. But more information is an imposition; the results that can be made from more information have more substantial value. If a system can search the world for the cheapest commodity to meet the requirements of well-specified performance criteria, only the result is important, not all the rest of the information the system used to provide it. If a system can test designs for safety, there is no need for elaborate procedures and documents for legislation, regulation and adjudication. If a system can produce reports that are directly pertinent to the task in hand, there is no requirement to learn and implement non-physical purely technical skills.

COMPATIBILITY

The most useful information is the information people are not obliged to see. The ingredients and barcode labels on cans of soup in supermarkets are seldom scrutinized, because people have faith in the system. The fact the labels exist is generally enough. In a similar way, it is not obligatory to understand everyone’s values, only that the interpretation of them in physical things is compatible to those of others, whether individually or as a society. This is the job of the cybermachines, hyperfiles and iconographs. Values are defined by setting criteria. If the value is “the atmosphere should be warm”, then one of its criteria might be “use only colors that have a specific alphabetic prefix.3” The defined criteria enables the cybermachine to produce reports of how they interact with other criteria related to other values. Acceptance of options displayed by the reports consequently acknowledges acceptance of the balance of values that initiated them, which may be expressed as compatibility or compromise.

When society and architecture meet at a Public Hearing for a proposed new development, like for a new publicly sponsored airport, is the inquiry a search for compatible values or a forum to negotiate the best deals for the factions represented? Are the success ratings of the deals based on a full understanding of the implications? The proposers, the owners and their architects, are forced to be specific, while the audience is free to apply whatever values they consider pertinent at the time. The dilemma is that to be specific, the proposers have to present visual material for their design concepts, even though they may have a five year design program ahead of them. However preliminary the proposals, no words or markings will effectively subdue the strength of subjective judgment.

Supposing the tables are turned, and the proposers provide one thousand or ten thousand options of what the development might look like, based on their own criteria. The proposers could ask the audience what criteria they would like to see amended based on what they saw, and then show them the results. The process would be less of an inquiry and more a symposium to identify compatible values.

Consider an architect and interior designer has a friend who is a whiz at producing photo realistic models of interiors. After a quick lunch with a client to receive the brief for a chic new restaurant, the architect visited the premises and within two days had produced what seemed like photographs of the finished interior. The architect next met the client and proudly presented the images. The client's face dropped. “I thought you would bring along some rough sketches, so that we could go through the ideas together.” The client did not just want the design but also to contribute to the process, without this the client felt that it was impossible to ever actually “own” the restaurant.

This architect’s use of the latest technology was full of good intent, but it quickly became clear that the technology was far from the panacea that the media proclaim. It did not address the root of good communication, pertinent information; it glossed over it. It is more important that owner and designer prove to be sufficiently compatible to be able to produce an end product that satisfies both of them.

The best way to find out about compatibility is by visually examining the options that result from the interaction of ideas and values, the criteria. This cocktail of values may have startlingly different ingredients, but might well stimulate ideas that produce an unexpectedly compatible result. “The landscape demands that the building should lead your eye towards the sky.” “What the hell does he mean?” After viewing several images of the options generated from the project's criteria, the reaction could be, “Yes, that also fits in very well with my idea of the company image.”

Old World modernists have tried in vain for the past century to provide society with architectural visions and -isms intended to shape contemporary life as well the future. But modernism cannot accept a singular approach to guide its physical creations. Contemporary life and individuality are too closely related. Architecture cannot look to aesthetic expression alone to acquire an identity appropriate for its time. It must recognize all aspects of creativity, including the act of creating in its physical sense. By working with the smallest particles of creativity, Atomic Architecture can form a new modern identity, one that does not dictate. The particles of Atomic Architecture, the entities, can be arranged and rearranged in an infinite array of ultimately unique and differing physical structures, natural catalysts to find compatibility. Is architecture prepared to search for this compatibility, or is it too bogged down with nineteenth century practice, that has been handed down, contorted and complicated? Will architecture look to information technology to help with the complexity of design, or will it continue to use it to further confuse the issues?

Ask architects whether they always know where they are at any one time during the design process, or if they are sure that all of the concepts they held dear made it through to the end result. The answer will usually be no. Suggest there will be help available from a web site that everyone in a project can use to help manage and coordinate or can even acquire building products. The answer will probably be positive. Then tell them that design process planning and documentation of “pre-production” design leads on to buildings being built without technical drawings, the removal of management hierarchy, and the liquidation of institutionalized regulations. The reaction will be one of bewilderment, how could anyone say such things.


Evolution will settle this debate.

This is not the concern of the general population until the importance of architecture as the creator of its built environment is recognized. It is for architecture to reassert itself, not by simply proclaiming its role as the central member in the design team but by enabling it to happen naturally from having closer relationships with the building and manufacturing industries. Architecture can establish a method of creating buildings that ameliorates compatibility between individuals, and individuals and society. This encompasses an appropriate balance between the highly valued aesthetics of the finished product and a dynamic accountability for the rationale of its creation and function.

© 1999 Glasier, Dykers. All rights reserved

Comments