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Green Strategies: Ecological Design Research and Computation

Key players in the sustainability scene come together at the Architectural Association to discuss the new directions of environmental design

These are interesting times for architecture. As existing paradigms are being eroded by external factors – be it the economic crisis or the impressive rise of mobile media – the profession seems wandering in search of a solid ground from which to rethink itself and its production. Emerging countries are studied as potential sources of new ideas, while current theories quickly mutate as their shortcomings become apparent.

A good example of this is the current pejorative use of the word sustainability in architecture which, until not long ago, was instead confidently waved by engineers and architects alike as a fundamental paradigm for design. Today we feel more comfortable with broader notions such as ecology; that is, we prefer more expanded concepts that allow us to think of these issues in more cultural or even metaphorical terms, beyond the more immediate technical challenges they may pose. The idea of expanding previously enclosed fields to make them more permeable to each other’s discourses is perhaps a symptom of the profession’s quest for a new form of synthesis which may inspire both theory and practice.

It is along these lines that the AA-AD Symposium: Ecological Design Research and Computation took place at the end of April at the Architectural Association in London. The day-long event, supported by the AA School’s Masters Programme in Sustainable Environmental Design, was intended as an expansion of the ideas and projects featured in the recent issue of Architectural Design ‘Experimental Green Strategies: Redefining Ecological Design Research’.

Green strategies are an intensely debated topic that has quickly attracted many researchers giving rise to a variegated landscape of positions. For instance, Rachel Armstrong or Neri Oxman are suggesting that a truly ecological architecture should be based on living materials that will literally change their behaviour according to external stimuli. The like-minded people gathered for the AA symposium, however, devised more immediate and broader concerns the profession can implement without taking extreme measures: these are the practical and conceptual tools we have to analyse and design our built environment.

All interventions from both academics and practitioners were unified by a common – but not always achieved – goal to widen the debate on environmental design so as to move it beyond mere efficiency criteria and to enrich it with more cultural and humanistic connotations which may impact design in many and possibly unpredictable ways. At the core of this challenge lies the notion of representation: what are talking about when we talk about environments? How can we map and encode them to turn them into productive tools for design?

The opening paper by Simos Yannas clearly set the tone for the challenges ahead. His idea to decouple design from pure mechanical preoccupations freed up space for people to become much more central parameters for environmental design. Although user-centred design is not a new field of research per se, green design often overlooks users’ cultural practices to concentrate on the efficiency of mechanical systems. Digital tools as well also hinder this endeavour as they are still not conceived to compute both quantitative (metrics) and qualitative (people) parameters; as a result generative and simulation tools have only a poor correspondence and thus limit the effectiveness of designers’ decisions.

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Moreover, buildings conceived this way would also have to perform differently; they should be more dynamic and flexible, allowing people effectively to alter internal and external environments.

Robert Aish – the renowned software engineer creator of important parametric digital packages such as Generative Components – continued this line of investigation by analysing the relation between computer scripting languages and innovation. In a concise and enthusiastic presentation, Aish explored the relation between constraints and freedom in the design process by tracking the steps through which languages develop. He was quick to dismiss any description of design processes that did not account for intuition and playfulness to then urge architects to move the discussion on green strategies beyond both superficial decoration and pure functionality.

Aish explained how languages are cultural constructs based on executable abstractions. They must be intuitive and abstract so as to reward unpredictable applications which are at the core of their survival. As the presentation unfolded you could not help but think of the dogmatic formulas of Parametricism or the extreme user-friendliness of Apple products as the objects of Aish’s critique. He concluded his presentation by quoting American computer scientist Alan Perlis who said that ‘if a language is not changing the way we think it is not worth learning it’. Again, behind the issues of Green strategies a broader agenda was unfolding.

What the symposium as a whole suggested very clearly is that the future of architecture will be more and more about processes and procedures. However, this will not be a technical issue. Technology, more precisely the exponential growth of computing power able to sense and compute ever-larger data sets, is only part of a larger cultural transformation which strives towards a holistic, or ecological, account of reality. This is no small transformation: if the first part of the symposium concentrated on the conceptual challenge this presents, in the afternoon session large offices such as Aedas, Atelier 10 and Foster + Partners showed what kind of buildings will emerge out of this transformation. The second part of the symposim was not always as convincing as the first, perhaps unwittingly highlighting the profound and potentially fertile conundrum architecture is facing.

If, on the one hand, architecture as a stable, permanent shelter fulfils a primary need which will only grow in the future; on the other, the tenets of design are progressively being eroded by an equally growing demand for dynamic, interactive structures at odds with any traditional definition of architecture. If computers can easily deal with complexity, time and transformation, buildings cannot. It is perhaps for this reason that ecological design has been embracing process-based designs rather than stylistic approaches. However, no conceptual revolution can be claimed without a parallel stylistic innovation. Without a subtle mediation between processes and forms, between green technologies and cultural values, the agenda of green design may lose its radical impact on architecture and be relegated to a technical requirement to simply satisfy. That would be tremendous missed opportunity.

Ecological Design Research and Computation

Event: AA-AD Symposium
Venue: Architectural Association
City: London
Date: 30 April 2012

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