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Autopoeitic Elegance
Patrik Schumacher
Published in: MRGD Morphe, c/o RIEA (Research Institute of Experimental Architecture), General Editor: Lebbeus Woods

Morphe is one of those rare design research projects where a radically process driven design research culminates in an extraordinary elegance.The elegance instantiated here thrives on complexity rather than simplicity. The sense of elegance indicates that an intricate problem has been beautifully resolved. Elegance articulates complexity.

The complexity is initially produced from within a closed computational system, the maya hair dynamic system. Here arrays of lines are manipulated by means of mutual attraction (cling) forces while simultaneously responding to quasi-gravitational forces. The system is able to dynamically resolve any initial geometry together with any configuration of forces by producing resultant configurations that display both the rich differentiation and the lawful coherency that we would expect in complex natural systems. This internal regime of producing ordered complexity can be utilized to absorb, process and articulate external complexity as long as we are able to represent this complexity within the system. For instance, the multiple directions by which paths hit or dissect a site might be taken as the initial set up for the dynamical system.

The project does indeed initially proceed from a planar path-systems. It then moves on to explore three-dimensional webs, and then tries to look for coincidences between paths-ways and structural logics. The quasi-physics of the hair-system is being paralleled by the exploration of the real physics and material logic of webs made from curving steel wires. Then surfaces are introduced to generate platforms for accommodation as well as producing a tight fitting enclosing envelope. This envelope surface – which filters the internal complexity without obliterating it -  is then populated by generative components that are sensitive and responsive to the subtle differentiations that are embedded within these surfaces. The components translate the differences in orientation and curvature into a differential component morphology. The ability to set up such chains of lawful correlation turns the designer from a form-giver into a law-maker. In the case of Morpohe path-systems are traced by structural logics, which in turn are filtered by a surface-curvature logic, which in turn is finally accentuated by a responsive component morphology. Then light plays upon this deep relief as yet another layer of parametric translation.

The way these various systems feed into each other follows the paradigm of autopoeisis rather than the paradigm of mechanical translation. The difference is perhaps best exemplified by the difference between kicking a ball and kicking a dog. The first case is a rigid cause and effect connection, the second is a stimulus – response mechanism whereby the response is highly mediated via selective cognition and internal processing of the stimulus. Instead of simply being pervaded and fully determined by an exterior impulse, autopoeitic systems maintain an arsenal of response options that can be selected and combined according to internal logics that evolve on the basis of experiences. Instead of a cause-and-effect model we might use a stimulus-response model, or even better a cognition-information-processing model. The cognition and information processing of autopoeitic systems depends as much on its internal state as on its external environment. The way the various computational subsystems of the associative parametric model are sensitive to each other is best analysed in analogy to autopoeitic systems. Just like a series of structurally coupled autopeitic systems the different layers of the associative-parametric model each encompass a whole range of response options that the designer can calibrate. Each layer is an autopeitic system and simultaneously a subsystem in an encompassing autopeitic system. No linear point to point correlations need to be assumed from layer to layer. The designer can script associative functions that entail inverse relations, thresholds and turning points. The system’s overall operating laws can be made sensitive to the urban context.  Contextual nuances can then ripple through the system in a generative cascade that can be invented and calibrated by the designer.

It is this sense of autopoeitic complexity that assimilates this work to organic natural systems, where all forms are the result of intricately interacting selections. Just like natural systems, elegant compositions are so highly integrated that they cannot be neatly decomposed – a major point of difference in comparison with the modern design paradigm of clear separation of functional subsystems. Instead of the separation of subsystems we emphasize the structural coupling or organic inter-articulation of subsystems.
The exploitation of natural morphologies as a source domain for analogical transference into architecture made a substantial contribution to the development of a new fluid language of architecture. This new architectural language is marked by a new level of intricate coherency in the deployment of curvelinear geometry that can articulate complex arrangements and relationships without loosing out on legibility and the capacity to orient users.
With Morphe we go further: from imitating nature to the creation of a second nature – with an enormous gain in freedom of creation. We are moving from a new architectural language to a whole new paradigm for architecture.
It was Frei Otto who most systematically harnessed the lawfulness of physical systems as form-finding procedure to generate his design-morphology. The results have been striking. Morphe is taking Frei Otto’s work as one of its major sources of inspiration. Lars Spuybroek has described these form-finding processes as “material computing”. Such analog form-finding processes can complement the new digital design tools. The new digital tools might in fact be best described as quasi-physical form-finding processes. The most advanced tools – like Generative Components -  offer associative logics that allow the designer to set up complex systems of parametric interaction. Any parameter of any object might be dynamically correlated with any parameter of any other object within the model. This means that the designer might craft an artificial “universe”, with its own peculiar “ontology” and “laws of nature”.The formal/spatial systems that can be generated now start to look more and more like natural systems where all modulations are the result of the complex interaction of physical forces or like organic system where the forms result from a similar play of forces selected from a much wider range and integrated in adaptation to divers performance requirements.
A specific aspect of this overall lawful and integrated nature of elegance is the capacity of elegant “compositions” to adapt to complex urban contexts. Adaptive capacity or adaptation is another key ambition of the contemporary avant-garde trend that might suggest comparison with natural organic systems. An architectural system that has an enhanced capacity to adapt to its environment will result in an intricate artifact-context ensemble that has sublated initial contradictions into a new complex synthesis that further enhances the overall sense of sophisticated elegance. The model for adaptation here is again based on the concept of autopoeisis  - with a principally unlimited  range of possible contextual affiliations – rather than assuming straightforward assimilation. Autopoeitic affiliation is inherently unpredictable. But you recognize it when you see it. There is a strong sense of fitness and correspondence – without always being able to realize how this is being achieved.
This capacity for unexpected, “magical” forms of contextual adaptation has been powerfully demonstrated by Morphe. The way this new multi-layered construct affiliates and symbiotically fuses with Centre Point tower is rather striking. The talented eye remains a crucial arbiter in the steering of the associative set up towards a visually effective articulation of complexity. In architecture we ultimately care only about those intricacies that can be experienced.

Morphe is demonstrating how the strategic harnessing of the new computational power can lead to a new style in the best sense of the word. A new style in this sense has two critical aspects: A new style coheres a research programme that proceeds from a unique paradigm determining the paradigmatic problems, preferred methods and evaluative criteria of avant-garde design research.  A new style is also unique with respect to its phenomenology, i.e. its visual appearance and articulatory power to orient the relevant life processes; unique in what it demands from us in terms of attentional focus and perceptive comprehension. Morphe participates in the formation of a new style in this sense. The paradigmatic problematic of this new style is the design of associative logics and its phenomenological agenda is autopeitic elegance. This style is well under way and is building up towards a hegemonic position within the avant-garde of architecture. But it has not been christened yet. My proposal is to call it Parametricism. For me Morphe gives us a compelling instance of this new style.



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