Computer Aided Architectonic Design. Theory under the premise of primary abundance.

The laboratory for applied virtuality is a theory research group at the Chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design at the Institute for Technology in Architecture, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH in Zurich.

IT is playing an increasingly important role in architectural design and thinking. While the design and conception space of computational methods open up a vast new horizon of what can possibly be done that has never been feasible before, we can observe a strange phenomenon among our students and within fellow communities: the greater and professional the skills in working with computers, the lesser the curiosity for individual processes of abstraction, formalization, problematization and solution-seeking. In other words: the better and assiduous the craft in scripting and parametrically twisting and tweeking the schemes and templates offered off-the-shelve, the lesser seem to be individual ambitions for autonomous thought and reasoning. To our great surprise and incomprehension, we experience strong indicators of devaluation regarding the cultural esteem for intellectuality. As if we were living in the end times of history. And this despite the obvious fact that all technologies supporting the common wealth today are nothing less and nothing more than the produces of intellectuality.

Research and teaching at the laboratory for applied virtuality draws from the cultural wealth, both historically and contemporarily, of forms of knowing and learning. We view these treasures in a sportive way and want to learn what kinds of strength and abilities they allow us to develop and acquire when integrating their diverse schemas, and when learning to understand better the peculiar stories each of them is telling – very often by fighting over right definitions of commonly used concepts and notions. Our perspective onto them is more akin to the one we take when hiking in the mountains, cultivating good cooking, or when working out in a gym: the performed movements (now mentally translate to: movements in thinking) are not for the sake of the value of the precise movements themselves, but for the overall fitness, agility and pleasure which exercising will bring you, individually.

By pursueing a comparatistic approach in learning to understand structurally the symbolic forms of thought, and their varying codification and systematic integration into different theories, we seek to articulate an affirmative theory of actively applying the potentials of IT. The laboratory for applied virtuality works on developing a curriculum for instructing the training of the individual's capacities in thinking within networked, digital, accessible, and information saturated environments. Of crucial importance, thereby, is the departure, reference and integration of state of the art technology. We view such a curriculum as complementary to those organized on the one hand in historical disciplines of educating the human faculties of reasoning and cognating, and to applied disciplines of polytechnical sciences on the other hand.

As to winter 2012, the laboratory for applied virtuality has completed a public science book on the convergence of IT and energy technology entitled "Genius Planet. From scarcity to abundance: a radical rethink for our energy future", and organized three conferences [link to metalithicum] dedicated to radical and interdisciplinary interest in symbols and their computability, is working on editing the outcomes and contributions to these conferences in a book series to be published by Birkhäuser. Furthermore we are offering courses [link to teachings] for graduate, postgraduate and doctoral students in the philosophy and theory of technology.

Forthcoming books:

Genius Planet. From scarcity to abundance: a radical rethink for our energy future. Authored by Ludger Hovestadt and Vera Bühlmann, with Sebastian Michael as writer (forthcoming in fall 2012).

Printed Physics. Applied Virtuality Book Series Vol. 1. Edited by Vera Bühlmann and Ludger Hovestadt, Springer (forthcoming Winter 2012).

Domesticating Symbols. Applied Virtuality Book Series Vol. 2. Edited by Vera Bühlmann and Ludger Hovestadt, Springer (forthcoming Summer 2013).

Symbolizing Existence. Applied Virtuality Book Series Vol. 3. Edited by Vera Bühlmann and Ludger Hovestadt, Springer (forthcoming Winter 2013).

Contact:

Dr. phil. Vera Bühlmann

Digital architectonics, pre-specific modelling

The digital means, in effect, primary abundance. How to treat units, elements, proportions, ratios, similarities, how to gain orientations, stabilities in primary abundance? How might we conceive of a digital architectonics?

Let's follow the often forgotten idea of a general science of measuring, called posology, and relate this idea to that of a general science of "nacked" or "pure" quantities, that of a mathesis universalis. Posology has perhaps first been mentionend by Aristotle, and has been picked up in an interesting way lately by Gilles Deleuze (in his lecture on the Method of Dramatization). Instead of asking what-questions, in the sense of essence, posology asks what-quantity-questions first, before characterizing and classifying substances. Broadly speaking, posology is concerned with the question of dosage. Any question of dosage, different from those of measurement, is orientated within a variety of scales which can only in principle be fully determined, yet never actually, exhaustively, positively. Dosages are tested and fixed between maxima and minima – symbolical markings of virtual extremes – rather than on the basis of elementary givens. Nevertheless, such testing needs to be fully determinable in principle, and this is where the basic theorem of algebra becomes interesting: There are computable solutions to every problem. Not only on solution, and neither one absolutely optimal solutions, but whole ranges of possible ones. The challenge now shifts towards the articulation, the formulation and the formalization of what we regard as problematic. Such modelling, articulating, formulating, formalizing, computing and simulating differentiated perspectives on virtually possible solutions, this we call pre-specific modelling.

Like any modelling, also pre-specific modelling depends on partition and analysis, or to link it closer to our framework of a generalized posology: every dosage needs a unit according to which it can be measured, described, and passed on. Units are derived by setting some defined magnitude as elementary. Within architecture, the paradigmatic example would be the so called column module in the art of Greek Temple Building, from which the ratio is derived and declinated across scales to put the whole building into proportions. Today we are working with computers, where the elementary units are bits. Bits are the kind of units which render information into a technologically handable quantity. Usually, they are treated as code-based storage devices, of no theoretical interest in themselves and arbitrarily depending on different standards, such as 16 or 32 bit standards. The difference of these standards lie, mainly, in their capacities to store large numbers.

And yet, bits are literally speaking a very peculiar thing – looked at within the philosophical language game of quantities, they are of a strange kind indeed. Before the rise of symbolic algebra and set theory, every quantity has been treated, for more than two millennia, under the double aspect of magnitude (how much? how long? etc.) and mulititude (how many?). Each of those aspects depends on the determination of units, either for measuring or for counting. Units are derived by setting some defined magnitude as elementary. Within architecture, the paradigmatic example would be the so called column module in the art of Greek Temple Building, from which the ratio is derived and declinated across scales to put the whole building into proportions.

Now with information technology, we have bits as finite formal units (that's why they can be treated technically, they are formal) – yet they are units of indefinite determinability. Indefinit is not the same as infinit, this is quite important to distinguish. While infinit would fit well within the elemental thinking of basics, primes, roots and kernels, the indefinit fits much better within a posological thinking of dosages. Hence we will call our digital bits Any-Units. Perhaps they can be conceived as Intensive Quantities. Perhaps, these are tentative ideas for now. In any case, they quite severly upset our notions of measuring and proportionality. In actual built or designed architecture, this makes for funny shapes and – as Etienne-Louis Boullée, the French Enlightenment Architect might have termed buildings like those of Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid not without contempt – colossal volumes of gigantic, titanic and primary order. In less emphatic and more placid and general terms, they indicate at least a changed principle of availability through logistics. Digital logistics, so they make quite clear, comprehends much more than the infrastructures for physical mobility of transporting products, people, and structures. What used to be a model of something increasingly becomes applied as a model for something.

For a digital architectonis it still remains to be conceptualized how exactly the quantity-constitutive units of today, the informational bits, can be thought to help continuing the uncomparably rich and differentiated genealogy spanning from Euclid's elementary geometry via Cartesian analytic geometry, the 17th century approaches to specious algebra and geometry, their concentration and radicalization in the Leibnizian idea of a characteristica universalis and an analysis situs, to Boole's algebraization of classical syllogisms and their topoi to Turing's mechanization of arithmetics in general. Surely, computed forms and structures that could not, by non-digital means, be drawn or calculated, ought to be put within this tradition.

What we call pre-specific modelling focuses on problems resolvable only from a stance within the Universability of Information. We thereby regard information not as quantum, nor as quantity, but as quantitability. While fully determinable, information is, consitutively so, indefinite. To make one step towards a digital proportionality we could say: information as quantitability is abstract but real just like the space of the real numbers is abstract but real. And as little as real numbers can be understood to represent natural numbers or integers, as little can information be understood as representing semantic denotation. Like the real numbers, information can be limited (or defined) by active determination only. In the case of information, such determination is instantiated by actively maintained integration, and differentiation of what the any-bits are supposed to articulate and organize. For just as we see them belonging to the philosophical language game of quantity, they surely belong to that of notation, script and media. Here, however, the any-bits can be conceived, actually, as the Leibnizian universal "characters" – with the significant difference, however, that universality to the algebraist today cannot mean a totality, an absolute term, any more. We have long started to inhabit universes of discourse, in the plural.

 

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CAAD. laboratory for applied virtuality
Peter Greenaway, The Draughtman‘s Contract

Our friend, the electron

When we talk about "data", and about "information" we strain to imagine what it is that actually happens with it in a digital network. We always see the result of data travelling through the network, because the computer goes "ping" and we can read an email that's been sent, or we can watch a news item being streamed live while we're at the station waiting for a train that's been delayed, but it's well nigh impossible to visualise, in your head, what actually happens in order for us to be able to do so.

That's until you become friends with the electron. Being a subatomic particle with a mass of a bit more than one two thousandth of a proton, the electron is very small indeed. If you were to place an average size grapefruit next to an average size pea, you would have, in very broad approximation, the relative sizes of a proton and an electron. Except that inside the atom they would be rather further away from each other. To get an idea of how far away, put your grapefruit in the palm of Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London. You would then find the pea whizzing around the M25, which, if you don't know London that well, is the suburban orbital motorway which encircles the city approximately 20 miles from the centre. Bearing in mind the pea size of our electron relative to the grapefruit nucleus in Nelson's hand, we then have an atom the size of Greater London. But an atom is hardly the size of London. An atom itself is so small that one million atoms, lined up next to each other, make up about the thickness of the page you're holding in your hand, if you are reading this book on paper. So you can see just how small an electron really is, it's as big as a pea inside an atom as big as London, but it takes a million atoms to make up the thickness of a page in a book.

Tiny as it is, the electron, it is still negatively charged. In fact you may recall it has an elementary charge of -1. And that is why, in energy terms, the electron is our friend. Because being so small it can travel exceptionally fast, at nearly at the speed of light. And having an electrical charge, even a tiny one, it will change the state of any atom it happens to travel to, because most atoms most of the time are balanced in terms of their electromagnetic charge, which means they are neutral. (If that weren't the case, you'd continually get small or large electric shocks when touching things. But as you know from experience, that only happens when you either touch something that has been deliberately electrified, such as a wire with a current running through it, or when you touch something that has got accidentally charged, such as a metallic surface that has been exposed to some friction, or the hand of somebody who's been moving about a lot in a synthetic garment.) So because the "normal" state for most things when nothing is happening to them is neutral, each time an electron comes along, with its negative charge, it upsets things a little. The atom where the electron has arrived is now either negatively charged too, because the balance is out of kilter, or it, the atom, does something drastic, like expunge another of its electrons. It's the expunging that's the interesting bit, because the electrons that are already there really "want" to be there. They don't "want" to leave. (The electron, with its minute size and subatomic nature, does not, we know, have a "will", we are trading metaphors here...) So there'll be a fair bit of jostling, before one of them goes, and that jostling is energy which registers as either heat or light or a magnetic field. And so although the dimensions are crazy, and there's an awful lot of nothing in an atom, the electrons, with their diminutive size, have a fantastically big impact on them. They are a bit like the courier. We are oversimplifying things to some considerable extent now, but like a courier, they can carry a message (information) or a log of wood (energy). And the reason they can do either is because we have, about a hundred years after starting to make use of electricity as energy, found a way of using energy to symbolise information. We decreed that an electric charge should signify "on" or "yes" or "1" and that no electric charge should signify "off" or "no" or "0". And we worked out that if you break things up into small enough units, you can codify any piece of information in precisely these two contrasting expressions: "on" or "off", which is the same as "yes" or "no", which is the same as "1" or "0". (This, incidentally, covers only one technical aspect of digital encoding. In order to make information encodable, as it is today, developers and inventors had to break with century old traditions and invent a whole new algebra, as well as programming languages and bit-based binary code itself, which to go into would, at this stage, be stretching a little too far.)

The "digital" age was born, which is why to this day you see graphic designers illustrate all things to do with computers and information technology with cascading, travelling or otherwise moving ones and noughts. And this achievement, of using electricity to codify information has given us the ability to network information and deal with it, share it, distribute it, at the speed of light across the globe. But if we can "symbolise" information using electricity - which we patently can - then we can also "symbolise" electricity, using information. Now we no longer restrict ourselves to saying "electricity can carry information", we can also say "information can guide electricity". Because it clearly can: we don't have to treat electricity as if it were a barrel of oil or a heap of coal. It isn't. It's an abstraction of a barrel of oil or a heap of coal, or anything else we like to use to "generate" it. We can treat it as such, we can treat it as information.

 

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Abstract energy

It does not necessarily seem all that intuitive, this notion of electricity as an "abstraction" of energy. What, you are entitled to ask, is an "abstraction" of energy? Is energy not either energy or no energy? How can you make energy abstract? And perhaps here we should qualify. Maybe "abstraction" is not so helpful a term. Because do we mean that energy becomes an idea of itself? That it can no longer do what it could do before it was "abstract"? No. What we mean is that it has become removed from its source and can now be dealt with in a non-material way. It has, effectively become a meta-form of itself.

Really? Well yes.

Take the log of wood. It's a physical object, which we can stack up, chop in two, we can touch it, we can smell it. When we burn it, we know it's burning, there is no doubt about it, it's visible, tangible. In order to get it from the shed to the fire place, we have to go outside and lift it up and carry it in. If we want to make a big fire, big enough, say, to move a locomotive around a track, we don't use wood, we use coal, which is fossilised, very old wood, and we burn that instead. Instead of going to the shed we go to the coal mine and dig it out from there. To get it from the coal mine to the train depot we load it onto lorries and trains.

How does this compare to an electric fire, or an electric train? What can you actually see, or touch here? Nothing. The electric "fire" is no fire at all, it's a few metal bars that get red hot. So yes, if you touch them you'll burn your fingers, but the bars aren't burning, they just convert the energy back from electricity into heat. Or an electric train: we've once before remarked on the extraordinary fact that all it takes to get an electric train moving is a power cable and a pick up. And what's so brilliant is that whether we want to light an electric fire in our living room, or drive a train from Hamburg to Milan: the way in which we now "package" or "handle" the energy is the same: electricity can do either, and a million things on top.

So perhaps what we should say is that electricity is energy once or twice or more often removed from its source. The source can be anything. If it's coal, then you burn it to generate heat: the heat would be energy once removed from the coal. Turn that heat into steam and power a turbine, you get motion; the motion would be the energy once removed from the fire and twice removed from the coal. Neither the fire nor the motion though strike us as particularly abstract, and the reason they don't strike us as very abstract is because they're still visible, tangible and there are only so many things you can do with either. But the moment you remove the energy once more and turn it into electricity, you're really doing something new and quite different with it. Because now you turn it into something that can be anything. A fire can't be "anything". A fire can only be hot and moderately bright. On its own, the fire can't refrigerate your milk and it can't store your photographs. It can't suck the dust out of your carpet and it can't ping you the football scores. It can't get you to watch the moon landing and it can't calculate the interest on your loan. Without somebody standing by and making smoke signals or blocking it off and then revealing it again at specific intervals it can't even send you a short message. Actually, it can. By burning, say, on a mountain top, it could send a message to somebody on another mountain top. But that's almost as far as it goes.

So what's new isn't that we can now, with electricity, imbue energy with meaning. We've been doing that for as long as we've been using energy. What is new is that up until the moment when we start to use electricity, the potential uses that we could put energy to, and therefore also the potential meanings we could associate with it, were determined by its own "type" or "form". So, much as there is indeed a range, but a limited range, of uses we have for fire and a fairly wide, but still limited scope for forms that fire can take and the meanings it can have, once we turn the fire into electricity, the range of uses and the scope of meanings becomes limited primarily by what we are capable to articulate as an idea. We no longer need to talk of potential uses and meanings, we can simply talk of potentiality itself, the potential of potentials. Because many, you could say most, of the uses and meanings that we use electricity for could not even be imagined at the time electricity was first experimented with.

We can express this a little differently. We can say that up until the time, around now, over the last fifty, sixty years or so, when we began to really understand and make use of digital encoding and computing, the application of energy was always derived from its own "meaning". "Meaning" to us, of course, but nevertheless "meaning" that was inherent in the energy itself. To stick with fire, because it is so elemental: the meaning that fire has to us is intrinsically linked to its own natural qualities, the way we experience them. We experience fire as "hot", so it follows that fire to us means "warmth, comfort". We experience that fire scares wild animals, so to us it means "safety". We experience fire as lighting up the dark, so to us it means "light". From these meanings we can derive uses that again follow "naturally". Once you realise that cooked food tastes better and is more easily digestible than raw food, it makes sense to use fire to prepare food by cooking it. So close is the connection between the meaning and the use, that we consider them practically inseparable, and that too is no coincidence, because we most likely discovered the use by applying fire in its meaningful way, even if it was purely by accident.

With electricity, we are now able to put the energy to uses for which we may not even have a meaning to start with. The meaning may yet be invented or reveal itself. If you struggle with the thought of energy having any "meaning" at all, you may find it easier to think in terms of "form". With electricity, it is no longer the case that the form that energy takes - such as fire - determines how we codify it. Instead, the way we codify energy - very specifically electricity - determines its application. You could say that the application is another, new "form" of the energy. And so you have, for the first time, a reverse relationship between energy, its form and its use. No longer does the form of the energy determine its uses, instead the use of the energy determines its form.

And it is in the word "codify" that you get a clue as to what we we're getting at here: looked at in this way (and we're aware this is one particular way of looking at it, this is not an absolute "truth" or and incontestable finding), energy could be said to be symbolic. Again, it doesn't come so easily to us to think of energy as "symbolic". How can energy be "symbolic", you may ask, and it's certainly true: the way we experience energy is not as "symbolic". But that's precisely the point. The way we experience energy is not "symbolic", because to us energy is "real". And that's because whenever we come in contact with it, we do so when it has taken on a form that we can relate to again: heat, motion, light. We always experience energy as "real" and not as "symbolic" because there is no other way for it to manifest itself to us. Before we turn it into electricity it is either heat or motion or light or sound, and when we become aware of it again, we do so because we've turned it back into heat or motion or light or sound. And these are not abstractions nor are they symbols of energy, they are, to us, realities. So what about electricity? Is that not "real"? Of course it's real enough, otherwise none of this would be happening, we wouldn't be writing, you wouldn't be reading, there would be nothing on TV tonight and nobody would be talking about an energy crisis.

But how would you describe it, as what? Well, exactly.

 

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Symbols and data

Digital architectonics, hence, will focus on what aspects these considerations open up for better understanding the largely technical 20th century notion of information in it's genuinely symbolic, algebraic make-up. How does the bit, as any-unit, belong into the genealogy of quantities, magnitudes, numbers, proportions, ratios? How does it fit within all that we know about treating known and unknown quantities, variable quantities i.e. any determinable indefinite quantity such as geometric summations or quadratures (integrals), or more radically and recently, since the rise of Dedekind's set theoretic number theory, the determinable indefinite quantities of algebraic kind, namely those determinable over the fields of numeric ideals instead of natural numbers or integers, when treated as terms within polynomial equation systems which always articulate wholeness by being genuinly partial?

Perhaps a little example: say you put on a remote island in the middle of the ocean two shipwrecked sailors and they encounter there a fruit neither of them has ever seen or tasted before but that is delicious, nutritious and in plentiful supply. They will soon make up a word for it. The wongle fruit, as they might call it, because it might remind them of a wongle, which they'll have a good laugh about, because only they will know what a wongle is, will soon acquire its own connotations and associations, and it will become part of their culture. Wongle juice, sea bass grilled and served with wongle, dried wongle and wongle powder will not be far off. And even if the two stranded sailors do not speak the same language and do not come from the same background, they are still capable of naming their fruit wongle or anything else they like the sound of, and the word may still become part of their little island culture. Until they are rescued by a passing vessel, take some wongle fruit with them and start an immensely successful wongle business, soon exporting wongle to every corner of the world, patenting their wongle soft drink and turning Wongle into a trademark and global brand. Because of its great health benefits, their ethical farming practices and a clever, sustained marketing campaign, Wongle may soon stand for something that is universally good and beneficial, and the word may become part of people's vocabulary around the world. They may start using it to express something really wholly to be endorsed, and say things like "he's a wongle of a man", or "we've had a wongle holiday"... It may even turn into a verb: "I don't know how she did it, but she's certainly wongled it!" The humble wongle has become well and truly symbolised.

So, theoretical questions for pre-specific modelling involve, among others, questions like: what are we actually analyzing, when looking for classification in datasets? What orientates our expectations when extracting the co-called Proportional Means for clustering data? How can we make sense of vectors, feature vectors but especially also eigenvectors, eigenvectors-conceived-within-populations? Because eigenvectors each encapsulate – to put it somewhat drastically – the entire Universe of Discourse that is logically (inferentially) possible on what they index. Are they not encountering, with this capacity of demarcating potential coherency, an oxymoron-kind of concept, a kind of "quantitative concept" which has not yet been articulated and rendered into an actual, intuitive form and meaning? And what, more profoundly still, orientates our ideas thereof? And how can we learn to think about orientation as an ability, as the intellectual ability to maintain social, cultural, economical stability, self-composure and placidness?

There are two assumptions we hold crucial for such a perspective. The first is that we can become friends with the electron. And the second is that electricity is an intellectual abstraction of energy. We are living on and are part of a genius planet.

 

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© ETH Zürich / ITA/ CAAD / LAV 2012