Life & much, much more

Architecture IRC channel on Freenode

Most of my readers will know that despite the majority of my blog posts being about technical content, I actually study architecture. The crossover between these two fields from my experience seems to be rather minimal. The computer geeks know a little about buildings, but not enough to do much about it. Similarly, the architecture folks dabble with computers, creating fields such as algorithmic architecture and parametric design. This dabbling rarely turns into anything serious from either party, and it’s quite hard to find an online community of those who are interested in both. I hope to change that with the new architecture IRC channel on freenode.

I recall lurking with the hopes of meeting another architect in #architect for a while. Occasionally someone would come but never stay, and the original channel founder left and hasn’t been back for a year or so. For this reason I have now registered ##architect (the double hash prefix due to Freenode’s channel rules) and will lurk yet again. I hope by writing this blog post other architects might notice and pop in.

What is IRC and how do I join the architecture IRC channel?

I realise that many architects might not be so familiar with what IRC is. IRC can be thought of as an online chat room divided into channels, which represent common topics of discussion. These channels are grouped into networks, which are simply organisations that provide these channels. So the full access details you need are as such:

Network: Freenode
Channel: ##architect

Just like you need a program such as Skype in order to chat with others using Skype, you will need an IRC program to chat with others on IRC. I recommend using downloading Quassel – it works on Windows, Mac and Linux.

If you don’t want to use a program, you can easily chat using the online Freenode webchat service. It’s super easy to get started, just type in a nickname for yourself and put ##architect in the channel box, and press connect.

Finally, don’t worry if nobody seems to be around, just stick around and we’ll respond when we’re back at a computer.

See you in the architecture IRC channel!

Edit: some people have popped up but leave quite quickly. Small IRC communities are frequently inactive but need people to stick around for it to grow. Please consider waiting a few hours, or just connecting frequently and when somebody else is also around we’ll have a chat.

Life & much, much more

Sydney revue coming up from the architecture faculty!

As some might remember, I was involved in a Sydney revue last year by the university of Sydney architecture faculty as the musical director. It was called Game of Homes (a shameless pun on the Game of Thrones series). Not only was I involved with music, it also gave me the wonderful opportunity to create a 3D animation for its opening sequence based on the original (and very well done) Game of Thrones sequence. You can view the animation sequence and corresponding revue poster in this post.

As this is an annual event, I’m happy to say that I’m again involved in it this year (as music again) and would like to present Floorless, a spaghetti western with a particularly complex pun for a title. It’s a joke on both the film Lawless, and on Flawless with an architectural twist. Get it? Nope? That’s alright. Me neither.

Sydney revue architecture

Anyway, you can tell that this is a quality Sydney revue because it has a quality poster. This means that if you’re in Sydney on the 5th, 6th or 7th of September, you should buy a cheap ticket and watch it.

Sydney revue poster alternative

It contains all the right ingredients for a successful western. These include bandits, sherrifs, the town stranger, the town drunk, the fastest shot in the West (which may sometime be the town drunk), the banjo brandishing hillbilly, the lonely harmonica player, a whip*, the mayor, Mexicans, the fine lass, and a Final standoff with capital F.

Also, there used to be an official revue website somewhere but as I can’t find it I assume that someone forgot to renew the domain and the site no longer exists.

Cheers, and see you at the event!

  • the whip may or may not be used at the actual event, and audience are recommended to not buy tickets for the front row.
Life & much, much more

Hello SevenStrokes: Building websites … a little differently

A few months ago, Chris Paplinski, Nathan Charrois, Kaushal Inna, Andre Brokman, Kelsie Rose and I, Dion Moult, gathered to create a company. Today, we would like to present to the world: SevenStrokes.

Sevenstrokes web development

SevenStrokes is a web development company but with a few key differences.

  1. Firstly, we see websites as a service, not a product. We don’t just build a website, we treat it as part of your larger corporate strategy.
  2. We build systems that mirror your day-to-day domain issues. We use a combination of behavior-driven development and code architecture that employs the same daily language that you do. This ensures our system makes sense not just in the software world, but in real life, and thus always move a step towards achieving your corporate goals.
  3. We follow many aspects of the open-source business model, ensuring that we assign the most motivated staff that want your site to succeed just as much as you do, and that full inspection guarantees your system integrity.
  4. We push for the latest industry standards and keep on pushing, even after launch. Websites are usually short-lived, but we’re changing that with a system architecture that maximises long-term life.

So what are you waiting for? Do you need a website built? Do you need somebody to help spearhead your latest online initiative? Check out SevenStrokes: Building websites … a little differently

sevenstrokes unique web design

Life & much, much more

DraftSight: a free and cross-platform alternative to AutoCAD

Whilst Linux is an excellent system for programmers, it’s certainly a little wanting for people who deal with creative graphics. There are tools like Krita, GIMP, Inkscape, Blender and Digikam and so on to help fill this gap, but one area which isn’t talked about so often are CAD tools. As an architecture student and a Linux user, I can safely say that the options are disappointing. It certainly is possible to have a complete graphics workflow on Linux, but it’s not as good as on Windows.

There were always CAD packages around such as FreeCAD and QCAD (I believe rebranded to LibreCAD) and its various derivatives, but they were all slow and not particularly powerful. However for the past few years, I’ve enjoyed DraftSight.

DraftSight - a free and cross-platform alternative to AutoCAD

Firstly, a disclaimer: DraftSight is not open-source. It is certainly free to use and works very well on all platforms, but it is backed by a commercial company (Dassault Systemes), is financed through an enterprise license, and certainly has no obligation to the community.

However perhaps the reason DraftSight is so much more powerful than the open-source alternatives is because it has a very clear goal: it wants to clone AutoCAD. Unlike GIMP, which has tried to define a new paradigm for itself, DraftSight keeps users in a familiar environment.

If you are on Gentoo Linux, I am maintaining the DraftSight package and as of May earlier this year, it is available in the betagarden overlay. For more information, you can see this bug.

Life & much, much more

A Beaglebone, a Blender, a Board, and a Swarm.

Hardware isn’t generally my thing. When it comes to software, I like to break and create. But in my opinion, hardware should just work. But even though that’s another story altogether, it did explain my apprehension when I greeted the UPS guy one morning delivering a BeagleBone Black.

beagleboneblack

Let’s begin with the BBB. It’s a computer the size of a credit card, which isn’t that impressive if you realise that your phone is a computer. I find the best way to explain it is in terms of two other products, the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi. The Arduino is a similarly sized (comes in multiple sizes though) controller where you can upload scripts, plug in a hardware circuit (wires and lightbulb, that sort of thing), and have it control the circuit. Despite its power in hardware control, it only has a small scripting interface for you to do your programming. The Raspberry Pi is the opposite. It’s a full Linux computer (based off Debian), but does not have proper hardware controls out of the box. The BBB provides the best of both worlds: a full Linux system (Angstrom Linux, but of course you can flash your own), and a ridiculous number of IO pins to control circuits. All this awesome power at 45USD.

The next step upon receiving this wonderboard was obvious. Let’s build a swarm of robots. Along with two university friends, Lawrence Huang and Gloria Nam, we set out planning the system.

world

The base was to be constructed out of a 1200x1200mm wooden plywood board and cut it into a circle with a hole in the middle. This would be the “world” where the robot swarm would live on. This world would operate like a Lazy Susan, and would have a two depots filled with some sort of resource. One at the center, and one at the perimeter. This gave the colony a purpose: it would need to collect resources. Above the board was where we would put the computer, BBB, power supply, and cables to hook up to all the bots below.

We then had to determine the behavior and movement capabilities of the swarm. It had to act as one, but still remain separate entities. It also had to disperse to discover where the rotated resource depots were, and the swarm as a whole had a set of goals and quota limitations. Five movement types (along with the math) were worked out to allow the bots smooth and flexible movement across the terrain.

rules

The overmind was next. We would use Blender‘s very flexible boid simulator along with custom Python scripts using Blender’s Python API to simulate the swarm behavior on the computer and set swarm goals. At the same time, a real-time top-down view could be generated and displayed. Due to budget reasons, we couldn’t build the entire swarm of robots, but instead settled on building just one bot in the swarm, and having this bot track the motions of a single bot on the computer screen, but still behave as part of the full 32-robot swarm on the screen. Viewers could then see on the screen the full swarm behavior, and physically see a single bots behavior in front of them.

swarmscreenshot

The car itself was then built. It was relatively small and was barely enough to fit the two continuous-rotation servo motors that were required to power its left and right treads. It had a little tank on its top to hold resources, a depositing mechanism at its front, and dragged along a massive conveyor belt to collect resources behind it.

car

Now the fun part – calibrating the simulated swarm with the actual physical swarm behavior, and doing all the physical PWM circuits. Many sleepless nights later it was a success. Here we see the bot doing a weird parking job into the depot and collecting resources, going back to the center, and depositing it. Apologies for the lack of video.

collect

And there we have it. A swarm of robots. Did it curb my fear of hardware? Not entirely.

frontshot

For those interested in the actual system, here’s a macro overview:

system

A few extra fun things from the project:

  • Calibration was not easy. Actually, it was very hard. No, it was stupidly hard. It was ridiculously hard. Real life has so many uncertainties.
  • Each bot is tethered to the overmind via 8 wires (3 per tread, 2 for conveyor belt). Could it be made into a wireless swarm? Yes. Did we have the money? No.
  • Could it be modified to move in 3D XYZ space like a swarm of helicopters? Yes. Would I do the math for it? No.
  • The actual simulation was done on the computer via Blender + custom python scripts. The computer was then connected via a persistent master SSH connection, which was reused to send simple signals to the pin’s embedded controller. So all in all the BBB actually didn’t do much work. It was just a software->hardware adapter.
  • Because the computer was doing all the work, it wasn’t hard to add network hooks. This meant we could actually control the system via our phones (which we did).
  • Weirdest bug? When (and only when) we connected the computer to the university wifi, flicking a switch 10 meters away in a completely separate circuit (seriously, completely separate) would cause the BBB to die. Still completely confused and will accept any explanation.
  • Timeframe for the project? 4 weeks along with other obligations.
  • Prior hardware and circuit experience: none. Well. Hooking up a lightbulb to a battery. Or something like that.
  • Casualties included at least three bot prototypes, a motor, and at least 50 Styrofoam rabbits (don’t ask)
  • Why are all these diagrams on weird old paper backgrounds? Why not?
  • At the time of the project, the BBB was less than a month old. This meant practically no documentation, and lack of coherent support in their IRC channels. As expected, this was hardly a good thing.

Project success. I hope you enjoyed it too :)

Life & much, much more

The one and only IBM Model M Keyboard

Any computer enthusiast will tell you that whereas computers in general have been getting better over the years, keyboards have been steadily degrading in their preference for design rather than build quality. Simply put, all keyboards nowadays (characterised by mushy rubber dome chicklet keys) are terrible. If all of this sounds like a weird geek fetish to you, stop reading now. Otherwise, read this series of posts which will give you a good general knowledge of the subject.

I had been debating for a while now whether or not to invest in a proper mechanical keyboard. Given that I am mostly mobile on a laptop, lugging around another keyboard would be a pain. But recently I stumbled across an IBM Model M back from 1991 (there is a birth certificate on its back).

IBM Model M Keyboard

After giving it a thorough cleaning, I have been using this for a month now and it is a beauty to type on — I doubt I’ll ever go back to using a regular keyboard again.

A few gotchas for the uninitiated:

  • It’s loud. Loud loud loud. Fine for your bedroom, but can be annoying in the office (you will bring it into work, won’t you?). However it’ll make everyone aware that you’re definitely hard at work.
  • It’s big. So big that it won’t neatly fit into any bag. You may want to consider a “Spacesaver” edition without the numpad.
  • There is no super (windows) key. Annoying if you rely on it for shortcuts, but ultimately a small price to pay for angels tapdancing on your fingers.
  • It’s not hard to press. Although the keys are bigger, it’s easier to type on this than on other keyboards.
  • It uses a PS/2 cable. You will likely need to buy a PS/2 to USB adapter to use it.

For those who have had the same dilemma as I did, make the switch. You won’t regret it.

Life & much, much more

Architecture’s existential crisis

Four posts ago, I took a break from the usual technical and on-going project posts, and instead went on a four part spree talking about Architecture. In particular, I tackled the question of Architecture’s existential crisis. It talks about issues about discipline and professionalism (actually inspired by Bob Martin’s similar talks in the software industry), the philosophies that architecture idolises, and overarching goals of the profession and the world in general.

The reason I spent so much time on this is because I believe that it is wrong to treat architecture as superficially as an art form. It is not a commodified object of entertainment like a book or movie. It isn’t something where people are given the choice to consume it. Instead, it is inherently part of our day to day lives and affects everyone. This means architects have a responsibility to others.

I’ve converted the rather long post into a LaTeX-compiled PDF, so those who haven’t read it due to the sheer size can enjoy it. Download it here.

Will resume to the usual topics after this.

Life & much, much more

Architecture’s existential crisis pt 4: Timeless frameworks, and where do we go from here?

In part 1: Architecture is not a Profession, I outlined architecture’s distraction with competitive theories rather than acting as a professional discipline and serving society.

In part 2: The Foundations of Architecture, I talked about what architecture is currently based upon, and how to unify these into a governing framework that encompasses all architectural ideologies based off Vitruvius.

In part 3: Goals, ethics, and the people element, I placed the framework within society and introduced aspects of a professional ethical responsibility to serve other people.

In this final conclusion, I talk about future proofing the efforts of an architectural profession, and hint at what where we go from here. What did this (very long) series conclude? Now what have we learned? What can we now set out to tackle?

The final element: Resolving timelessness

The architectural framework has addressed a need for a foundation as well as the need for professional goals. There is still one thing missing: the ability to solve these goals.

The world is complex. As architecture is a justified solution to a predefined problem using the world as its medium, many of architecture’s goals will also be complex.

Complex goals take time to solve. There isn’t much use in introducing a framework to solve larger issues if we don’t have time to solve these issues past a certain number of years or generations. We need time to understand the nuances of the world, test our solutions, and figure out where we went wrong.

This does not suggest that time is all that is needed to work the world out, if that is possible at all. It merely suggests that prolonged effort may be a good thing towards achieving goals.

To support complex goals that may bridge theories and allow us to carefully consider when we choose to advance a theory, I propose a final element to bind the first four. I propose time.

The word time refers not to itself, but its effects. This may be impermanence, permanence, change, conditions and their propagation.

  • It is encompassing. It is based upon time, the flip-side of built form, which is equally a universal constant for all built forms.
  • It is descriptive. It does not dictate an effect of time or a belief of how time works, but simply an awareness of its existence.
  • It is agnostic. As people and built forms all are part of physical phenomena, they are all subject to time, regardless of psychological belief.

Again, many theories have already considered time, such as metabolism, who felt the urgency to adapt, Nazism, who modeled a 100-year Reich after Roman’s “eternal classical architecture”, and sustainable architecture, who thought about future effects. Theories which are neo, post or somehow reactionary or a revival towards an older theory or even future-looking are all addressing issues of time. All consider that time happens.

The reason time binds the first four is because it helps us frame the era where theories are valid. It makes us state exactly how universal our proposals are trying to be. This influences theories to be seen not as standalone items but as part of an ongoing process. This awareness of a larger process helps share traits across theories that tackle the same goals, giving us a little push towards spending longer on a goal before giving up.

Nature of a framework

The final framework: firmness, commodity, delight, ethic and time is nothing new. By definition it has to have existed, been practised and seem blindingly obvious to the profession in order to work. This is the final proof of its validity as a binding force to the profession and to its three outlined characteristics.

Although the framework is presented rather dogmatically, it is designed to be extended and interpreted by its users. The only restriction is in the way it is extended: in the form of theories which state their position on each of the considered elements before elaborating into detail.

If extensions of the five elements are considered, they should be considered being well aware of their goals. For example, this framework differs from the original intentions of Vitruvius, and the later famous extensions by Alberti. Whilst Vitruvius tells how buildings are built, and Alberti tells how buildings are to be built[1], this framework’s goals falls somewhere in between. It is created neither to establish a new discipline or open a new epoch, as Alberti did, nor to be a custodian of tradition, as Vitruvius did. It is a guide between the two to solve an existential crisis.

As a guide, the framework is designed into architectural education. Instead of assuming a guidance of inspiration and genius, a framework provides a rational base. This ensures not only that architects are theorising and building, but join the two in a way that they are in full intellectual command of what they are designing[2].

Current architectural mentality - a timeline of ideologies

The current mentality. A time-focused view with each theory dominating. This model creates periods of existential crises.

A new view based on a framework, where ideologies are linked to society and seen as assets - strategic tools to use.

Architecture’s foundation – a framework to achieve goals. Theories are no longer marked as irrelevant after a certain time period, but may be reapplied depending on the society. Existential crises can no longer exist as long as everything is described against the framework.

Architectural discipline is its true value: as a tool and indicator to help define architectural goals that are larger than individual theories. It converts theoretical argument into a greater synergy across the profession.

A framework is also a declaration. It declares an understanding that we cannot predict the world, but can’t ignore it either. Even if we choose to ignore elements in the framework, it will have to be a conscious decision.

Finally, perhaps the most important nature of a framework is its communicability. Its simplicity allows it to be understood by those outside the profession and quickly empathised by those entering it. This concreteness helps form the basis of any abstractions used in the industry and distils it to useful, beneficial applications. Because we can once again connect to society on disciplined, measured and focused foundation, we can once again serve it as a profession.

Where to from here?

With an army of theories at our command, hundreds of tested implementations, and a framework to generate new ones should we need to, the only thing left is to actually define goals.

The question is, does architecture have a political meaning? The answer is, self-evidently yes. Should architects, like Le Corbusier or anyone else, today, try and change the world? The answer is also yes. Should architects have a blindness to who the client is? The answer is no.

Ricky Burdett, London School of Economics[3]

While the framework cannot prescribe goals, I can propose some as an individual. But what long-term, with high ethical standards, widely recognised, measurable, focused, disciplined, world changing goals are appropriate for the needs of society and the interests of others?

[The eight Millennium Development Goals] form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions.

United Nations[4]

Is it possible? Certainly not at the current state of the industry. Not with focus on theory and undisciplined schisms. Not without foundation. Not without society oriented goals and time to solve them. But perhaps it could be, just perhaps, if we became professionals.

  • [1] Alberti, L. B., Rywert, J, 1988, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, typeset Asco Typsetting, Hong Kong, printed USA.
  • [2] Breitschmid, M, Architecture \& Philosophy: Thoughts on Building, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
  • [3] Barbican Five Points for An Ethical Architecture, Architecture Foundation London, viewed 4 October 2012, http://vimeo.com/29281095
  • [4] Background, United Nations Millennium Development Goals, viewed 20 October 2012, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/bkgd.shtml
Life & much, much more

Architecture’s existential crisis pt 3: Goals, ethics, and the people element

In part 1: Architecture is not a Profession, I outlined architecture’s distraction with competitive theories rather than acting as a professional discipline and serving society.

In part 2: The Foundations of Architecture, I talked about what architecture is currently based upon, and how to unify these into a governing framework that encompasses all architectural ideologies based off Vitruvius.

In this part, I will extend the framework to hint at the goals and responsibilities of a professional discipline.

The role of a framework in determining goals

Whilst outlining the framework gives us a foundation as a profession, it says nothing about the precedence of welfare, health and safety of the community as needed in a profession. To do this, we need to refine the architectural framework to pinpoint goals in society.

I use the phrase “pinpoint in society” because a framework does not prescribe goals. It is descriptive. It doesn’t claim that the profession knows everything about the world and is authorised to make decisions for it. However, by outlining elemental considerations when people decide on a goal, it is able to influence these goals (This is still the case even if an element is marked as unimportant.).

The current framework has three elements: structure/firmness, commodity/function, and delight/design/beauty. The first tackles built form itself whereas the latter two tackles community reactions towards built form. Whilst these latter two elements may tackle some aspects of the welfare, health and safety of the community, I believe the addition (Unlike previous attempts to extend Vitruvius’ statement[1], this adds a new element rather than providing detail about existing elements. This is because providing detail converts the framework into a theory.) of a fourth community element may pinpoint this.

A new element: People are as important as built form

Architecture is a discipline where it is impossible to escape values. It’s radically value-laden. I think it’s possible that you can become an architect and see it as somewhat autonomous and not as a political act, which is incredibly naive. I try to make students aware of the radical, political, cultural, social nature of our work and how it’s impossible to escape those responsibilities.

-Thom Mayne, Morphosis

The element outlined above comes in the form of values and responsibilities. What governs our values and how to respond to these responsibilities are ethics (Ethics, morality and ethos (original Greek) can be used interchangeably.). As ethics also fits the requirements of a framework, I propose for ethics to be added as a fourth element:

  • It is encompassing. It is based upon people, which is a universal constant for all built forms. Whilst Vitruvius already targets the aesthetic judgement (when people react to firmness), the moral judgement (when people react to commodity) is left unconsidered. Whether or not we are consciously making decisions based on ethics, it will have effects nonetheless.
  • It is descriptive. It does not dictate the alignment of the moral compass but instead just highlights its presence as a quality of an architecture.
  • It is agnostic. All cultures have a moral compass, and as such, applies to all cultures. Ethics also covers the relation between groups and individuals, which won’t exclude individualistic cultures or the third architectural body who does what they please.

To further prove ethics as an element, we can list some theories who highlight their consideration to ethics: sustainability, where the primary value is that our decisions should not inhibit the opportunities of the future, modernism, where the moral value of truth was translated into an aesthetic quality, and then post-modernism, where the populist ethic was rejected[2]. As for older examples of theories, any theory governed by religious or political ideas has by definition shown consideration of ethics.

Ethics is also a useful addition as it fills a gap left by the original three elements (Vitruvius did mention aspects of ethics[3], such as relationships between men, politics, and precepts, but treats it in the form of a prescribed theory, not a framework). The original three elements either consider the built form itself or the relations between people and built form. Noticeably missing is people themselves. A recognition of people themselves is needed to highlight the distinction between the roles buildings play and the roles people play. Ethics covers both people themselves and the relationships to built form.

This coverage of people themselves and relationships to architecture cover societal aspects: aspects such as politics, environment / sustainability, humanitarian needs, urban planning, right down to individual clients. Including ethics as an element clearly strengthens the link to the welfare, health and safety of the community – one step closer to an architectural profession.

All architects have two clients whenever they work – one is the person that actually pays the bills, and the other is society in general. I think an architect that doesn’t see they are working for society in general doesn’t know his job.

-Joseph Rykwert, Architectural Historian[4]

Understanding of the interests of society is a prerequisite for ethics to be considered. This means that adding ethics as an element helps encourage consideration of our actions in the interests of others.

Although it is not the job of a framework to govern the application of its elements, it’s important to make sure that it can be applied in the first place. ie. to ensure that ethics is not “good in theory but not in practice”. This allows the element to be carried into architectural theories, and then implemented in architectural styles. We can prove this by citing religion, as well as agnostic hierarchies of ethical systems[5]. This practical side of the element means not only can it seed theories, it can fulfil the frameworks goals as a measurement tool.

Ethics is also complex. The inability to create a set of non-conflicting simple rules to govern ethics[5] over humanity’s history suggests a NP-complete nature. This means not only can it be applied in practice, it can also take many different forms that will continue to change over time.

This consideration of the interests of others, nature, welfare, health, and safety changes Vitruvius’ framework into a professional framework, ie. a framework pinpointed in society. We now have a framework consisting of firmness, commodity, delight, and ethics.

  • [1] Watkin, D, 2005, A History of Western Architecture, Laurence King Publishing, London, UK
  • [2] Boje, D. M., Toward a Narrative Ethics for Modern and Postmodern Organization Science, viewed 10 October 2012, http://business.nmsu.edu/~dboje/papers/toward_a_narrative_ethics_for_mo.htm
  • [3] Wotton, H, 1651, The elements of architecture (translated from De Architectura, Vitruvius), Thomas Maxey, London, UK
  • [4] Barbican Five Points for An Ethical Architecture, Architecture Foundation London, viewed 4 October 2012, http://vimeo.com/29281095
  • [5] Singer, P, 2011, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, New York, USA
Life & much, much more

Architecture’s existential crisis pt 2: The foundations of architecture

In part 1, I outlined architecture’s distraction with competitive theories rather than acting as a professional discipline and serving society. In this part, I will talk a bit about the categories of architectural theories and styles, and how we can unify these.

Why theories and styles are inappropriate

Goals and foundation are equally important to a functioning profession. However, although we have plenty of candidates for goals as offered by theories over the years, we only have a few candidates for architecture’s foundation. As of now, we seem to mainly compete over architectural theories and architectural styles. These become our two initial foundational candidates.

An architectural style describes the physical characteristics of an era. This may be as specific as pointed arches in Gothic architecture, or as vague as chaotic forms in Deconstructivist architecture.

An architectural theory is a set of ideas that outline an approach towards architecture. These ideas are non-arbitrary, which may be implemented in one or more architectural styles. For example, modernism’s “form follows function” is a theoretical approach towards architecture, and one stylistic implementation is by removing ornamentation from a building.

Creating this distinction between style and theory is important as it reveals that styles are insignificant. They are merely a single manifestation of an idea that people copied. They are fleeting, superficial, and aesthetically subjective–but more importantly, they represent a lack of understanding of the discipline behind a building (This has been identified in the second group of the architectural schism.). These are not hallmarks of a good foundation to base the architectural profession upon.

In contrast, an architectural theory is normally based on the religious, political, social, technological and ethical ideas of the time. This encompasses more aspects of our total experience of the world and thus makes it a better candidate for an architectural foundation.

Theories have been described as that which identifies the practices, production and related challenges of architecture. They re-evaluate architecture’s intentions and relevance\cite{newagenda_. Although it shares the same intentions as a foundation, the fact remains that theories die and have a short-lived existence compared to architecture’s full lifespan.

If theories and styles are both inappropriate, a third route is to consider that theories are simply strategies executed underneath a global and timeless architectural framework. The theory is not the foundation of architecture, but an instance which tackles the issues that the framework proposes. This is in the same way that a style is an instance which tackles the issues that a theory proposes. Identifying this global and timeless architectural framework, and in turn, foundation, is the first step to resolving architecture’s crisis.

Characteristics of a framework

A framework is a basic structure underlying a system or concept. Rather than attempt to elaborate on this phrase, I will instead immediately present an architectural framework:

[in Architecture, an operative art] the end must direct the operation. The end is to build well.

Well [an ideal] building hath three conditions: firmness [sturdy], commodity [useful], and delight [beautiful].

-Vitruvius[1]

For a quote which has survived more than 2000 years, it seems to remain relevant and encompasses all architectural theories. No matter how different each theory is, each theory first prioritises these three elements, and then prescribes a strategy to showcase their prioritisation. For example, Gothic architecture may be seen as prioritising firmness and delight, or Modernism may prioritise firmness (technology) and commodity. Some believe all are equal (Vitruvius), but all theories form a stance in relation to these three.

We also notice that the framework’s elements are neither prescriptive, proscriptive, affirmative or critical of anything. It is a listing of attributes which must be considered for a building, but offers no more guidance. It is a description, not an arguing point.

These elements are also agnostic. They do not rely on a culture, religion or belief. All physical forms have an element of structure (firmness). All living beings all have an intent (commodity). And when living beings are put together with structure, we give an aesthetic judgement (delight). This characteristic has given it a timeless nature.

These three characteristics (encompassing, descriptive, and agnostic) upheld by three elements (firmness, commodity, and delight) form an unquestionable architectural framework. Architects are now free to juggle different theories as strategies governed by the framework, but must consider all elements of the framework. They are also still free to implement a theory as an architectural style. Each style considers a theory, and each theory considers the framework.

A new hierarchy of Framework > Theory > Style shifts the focus of architecture away from the details of theories towards a set of commonalities. This allows us to treat theories as just another item in our toolkit towards solving bigger problems. It’s no longer about getting caught up in the details and their changing natures, it’s about selecting the right tool for the job.

This means that theories can be marketed as what they truly are: an approach towards a defined society, not a law unto itself. This helps prevent arguments about details and encourages speculation over the elements in the architectural framework as a root for theoretical strategies.

A resulting increased emphasis on society as a specific audience per theory allows us to be more aware of society’s needs. This allows us to tackle multiple types of societies simultaneously with each theoretical solution tailored towards their interests. This satisfies the professional requirement of working for the benefit of society.

Because of the framework’s characteristics, it may always be applied in all situations at all times without prescribing goals–a simple, agreeable outline that has always affected what we had done in the past, without restricting what we do in the future.

In part 3, I will explain how this architectural framework is incomplete without a compass to guide its application, and introduce the question of architectural ethics.

  • [1] Wotton, H, 1651, The elements of architecture (translated from De Architectura, Vitruvius), Thomas Maxey, London, UK
Life & much, much more

Architecture’s existential crisis pt 1: Architecture is not a profession

A while back (half a year ago), I planned to attempt to solve architecture’s long-lasting “existential crisis”. I thought of creating a framework where people could understand what a theory was and how to generate new ones. The more overarching goal was to look at architectural theories in a positive and constructive light, rather than as points of debate. However in this first part, I just want to highlight the symptoms of the problem.

In architecture’s 8,000 years or more years of existence, it has had about 112 distinct architectural styles (not counting regional differences)[1]. Each style represents a theory or a subset of one. More than half of these theories were formed in the past 250 years – a mere 3% of architecture’s lifespan. At this rate you will encounter 10 more architectural theories during your average career. Simply put, architecture has an existential crisis.

But what is an existential crisis? It’s a stage of development at which an individual questions the very foundations of his or her life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose or value.

An existential crises creates two problems. The first is that we are unable to define goals unanimously as an profession. Without goals, our efforts become divided and ineffective towards serving society.

Uncertainty has spilled over into our schools of architecture. Thirty years ago Christian Norberg-Schulz charged that “the schools have shown themselves incapable of bringing forth architects able to solve the actual tasks.” Things are no different today although we are more likely to meet with challenges to the very notion of “the actual tasks”. Do we know what these tasks are?
– Karsten Harries[2]

The second problem is that we lose a professional foundation. We are unable to be disciplined in our actions, measure standards of success, and focus on the needs of society. These are all professional traits that a foundation provides.

[A profession is] A disciplined group of individuals who adhere to high ethical standards and uphold themselves to, and are accepted by, the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised, organised body of learning derived from education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to exercise this knowledge and these skills in the interest of others.

Inherent in this definition is the concept that the responsibility for the welfare, health and safety of the community shall take precedence over other considerations.
– Australian Council of Professions[3]

As a result of undefined goals and non-existent foundation, we get lots of theories vying for the industry’s attention. However, at any one time only a few theories are marketed as relevant, each describing a certain type of society. Not only does this mean we are limited in our ability to serve types of society, but we get a schism in the architectural body into:

  • Those who apply theory as a discipline to the relevant group in society with shared interests. ie. part of a profession.
  • Those who apply theory as a discipline without understanding which society it was meant for. Exercising knowledge without considering the interests of others is not part of a profession.
  • Those who disregard theory and do what they please. This lack of discipline is also not part of a profession.

With architectural fame dominated by theoreticians who build, it is encouraged to critically observe the previous generation’s philosophy and debunk it with your own[4]. This is childish bickering–creating a dog-eat-dog industry where we aggressively defend our individuality and treat it as a good thing.

This lack of discipline and resulting schism is why I propose that either the state of architectural profession is a short-lived movement waiting to be debunked, or we do not have one. Extending this movement into something that is timeless and bound by the definition of a profession is how we can solve the existential crisis.

Some might argue that continuously questioning our approach is a sign of dedication towards relevancy in society and see it as a good thing. This, however, is missing the point: it isn’t about the details of each theory or how they are formed. It is about how theories are marketed.

Architectural theories are marketed as the be-all and end-all of architectural approach. Although hindsight continuously proves this to be wrong, our impression of current theory renders past theories outdated and somehow irrelevant. Our resistance to change then fixates our attention on the theoretical details between past and present, leading to arguments. This hinders our ability to see larger goals.

Additionally, we are still unable to outline goals or foundation despite increasingly and continuously questioning our foundations. If we continue generating theories at a rate of every 3-4 years without being able to highlight any one of these theories as being correct or still relevant today, then perhaps we are searching in the wrong place.

Coming in part 2: What are the foundations of architecture and why are they inappropriate?

  • [1] Timeline of architectural styles, Wikipedia, viewed 11 September 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_architectural_styles
  • [2] Harries, K, 2000, The Ethical Function of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
  • [3] Definition of a Profession, Australian Council of Professions, viewed 4 October 2012, http://www.accc.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/277772
  • [4] Breitschmid, M, Architecture & Philosophy: Thoughts on Building, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
Life & much, much more

Architecture and what makes good design

Given that my third year in architecture is about to begin, I wanted to talk a bit about what I judge to be “Good Architecture”. I’ve talked a bit about selfish architecture before and I want to expand on this.

Good architecture cares about other people and disregards our own subjective wants. I was first introduced to this idea back in the 2011 Flux Student Architecture Congress in Adelaide during a presentation by a New Zealander named Andrew Maynard. He switched to a new slide – split into two pictures. The left showing a picture of a typical Zaha Hadid shelter in her signature style, and the right showed the ubiquitous German bus stop.

Zaha Hadid vs the German Bus Stop

Andrew points out each picture and asks which is the better design? The winner, of course, is the bus stop. Why? Because of the following news headline: “Fake bus stop keeps Alzheimer’s patients from wandering off” ([source]/source).

These fake bus stops were put outside Alzheimer clinics. Previously, when patients were distressed, they would try to escape the building. The staff would then have to alert the police to track them down and bring the back. Now, they would see the bus stop, and sit there – waiting for the bus that would never come to bring them home. The staff would leave them to calm down, and after a while approach them and say kindly, “It looks like the bus is running late. Would you like to come inside for a cup of tea until it comes?” To which they would agree, calm down over some tea and biscuits, and forget that they were trying to leave.

This understanding of human needs and care for all parties (staff, patients, and society) is the hallmark of good design. It is in contrast to designing a prison to keep the patients inside, and in even greater contrast to Zaha Hadid’s socially-devoid self-indulgent form manipulations.

Unfortunately, folks like Zaha Hadid are worshipped and highlighted in our education, yet I can’t even find a name to attribute the bus stop to. You just need to look at the names of architecture firms to see the egotism – just notice how many are named after the architects themselves or their initials.

Become a better architect. Don’t be selfish.

Life & much, much more

End of 2012

Aha, it’s the end of 2012. Here’s a recap of the highlights of the year.

  • Firstly, I’ve finished my second year of architectural education at the University of Sydney. This has led to me forming some more baked opinions about the architecture industry.
  • I am now searching for architecture jobs and will likely begin work early 2013.
  • My design for of a museum of pacific art was selected as part of the 2012 university architecture catalogue.
  • There was the very excellent “Game of Homes” architecture revue, at which I acted as musical director and were reviewed as best revue band.
  • I am now a Gentoo developer
  • I have had much fun modeling and 3D printing various forest animals
  • I have developed a foundation to build web applications out of: a mix between HTML5 boilerplate, Kohana, Mustache, various drivers, and a skeleton DCI setup.
  • I have begun WIPUP2013: rebuilding WIPUP from the ground up with an improved and more maintainable backend, improved interface, and multiple device support.
  • A lot of fun work setting up a training scheme, dev infrastructure and QA standards with a web development company.
  • Early in the year: a couple months learning conversational Mandarin in Shanghai
  • A couple months enjoying Malaysia
  • Learning to cook a series of Malaysian dishes :) Yum!

Merry Christmas and a Happy new year, everyone!

Life & much, much more

Say no to selfish architecture

Oh dear, it’s been quite some time! Things have been astoundingly busy I’ve not had the time to touch the computer. However before we return to regular programming, there’s something I’d like to get off my chest.

Architecture is Selfish.

Architecture is an extremely old profession. However despite having such a long ancestry, it is still difficult to define exactly what architecture is.

In this regard, it is similar to the art industry, whose primary focus was initially representation and communication, but has long since devolved into abstractions that have left people similarly confused as to what art is. But that is another story, and is a challenge I will leave for another time.

I come today with the claim that architecture has and is growing towards a generation of selfish vanities, but before I do that, I need to attempt to answer the age old question of what architecture is.

Architecture is a justified solution to a predefined problem using the world as its medium. To be a master architect it is your job to be intimately familiar with the world in all of its nuances, and to be able to put it together into a solution which can be communicated and executed with results. This is not easy – the world is infinitely complex and to say its interactions are unpredictable is a vast understatement. To be able to master it completely is probably impossible, but it doesn’t mean you can’t win as many battles as you can on the way.

Having the world as its medium means three things:

  • Architecture extends across many, if not all industries. It is a saying that an architect needs to know a little about a lot – a form of a jack of all trades whose real ability is in the selection of trades. Architects need to be trained from the beginning to be exposed to other industries.
  • We cannot predict the world. We have to train ourselves to be sensitive towards behaviors and interactions. We won’t be perfect, but it’s better than not trying.
  • There are plenty of audiences to cater to. A well justified architecture needs to first filter what choices are relevant and prioritise the many interdependent aspects that make up the world. Justification has an audience, and knowing the audience is half the battle.

I hope, then, that I am alone in my experience of [undergrad] architectural education, which apparently doesn’t recognise the world as its medium.

Architecture in Education

In the undergraduate university, design is shifted into a dull detail whereas form, theorising and philosophy have been granted the “big picture” pedestal and requirement towards architectural fame: ie. you can’t be famous if you don’t have a charismatic philosophy.

Philosophy, or at least western ones, has the trait of “construction” – of adding a layer of imbued meaning or interpretation with increasing layers of complexity until it is taken as a truth, and then subsequently built upon again with another layer until it moves back into a subjective phase. Bonus points if your new layer is a reinterpretation or a controversial new direction.

For architecture, this means we are taking the already infinitely complex world scenario previously described and adding even more complexity on top – and the further up the abstraction tree you climb, the more you worry yourselves with incredibly irrelevant and in some cases, plain wrong, ideologies. Even worse, it is encouraged to add our own to the pile of abstractions rather than the opposite – stripping away constructions to get closer to what is -dare I use a dangerous phrase – an absolute truth. Architecture already presents itself with a fiendish problem without us having to add imaginary ones of our own.

Abstractions are a waste of time

Architecture has enough problems: a complex medium – to understand the world as its medium, unpredictability – problems revolve around people, and justification – how to confirm solutions. The only way to solve these issues is to look away from yourself and start learning about the worlds of other people. Architecture is not designed for the architect and never should be! Architects should design for the smile on other people’s faces, not their own.

It was worrying, then, the focus in my education on ideas like “what I thought”, or “what I felt” and then having it passed through the roulette board of critics. This is not what architecture should be – it should be a caring, empathising industry whose professionals aren’t those who are worshiped for their ideas but instead those who are able to appreciate the ideas of others. The real questions should be “who feels what, who thinks like this, and why are we listening to this who?”. With all the focus on “I”, we train ourselves to treat the architectural problem as an enemy with which we are at a constant war, whereas we should treat that world, our world, as our friend and ally. A proposal which doesn’t account for those most affected by it is a bad proposal.

This is why it is so important to be trained from the beginning to listen to others and to experience the worlds of other people. Not to make funky shapes or listen to arrogant philosophies and definitely not to make your own. Forms are getting easier to imagine with technology helping us, structural solutions are speeding ahead, and theories are a dime a dozen nowadays – the real issue is knowing how to empathise. It’s only from a young training that we can bridge the chasm between ourselves and the people around us.

I’ve come up with a few simple tests as to whether or not your architecture is selfish. Most architectural proposals have a concept – an overarching objective which governs all the decisions in the design process and the benchmark. This is the design equivalent of business’ mission statement. There is a lot of work put towards accurately defining this concept and then communicating it to others. A good concept is normally one which is loaded with meaning which can be extracted throughout the project. The tests are as follows:

  • Have you understood the complex medium of the world? If you have, you should be able to tell your concept to a bricklayer and they would understand the importance of why they are laying bricks. If you understand it well enough, you can present it simply enough.
  • Are you catering to unpredictability? How good can you predict a rant about a bad day in the life of your audience, and does your concept solves at least half of those issues?
  • Is your concept justified? Justified concepts can be re-communicated: somebody else should be able to present the concept on your behalf without any loss in key information.

And finally, to combat the common denominator – does your architecture care? Can you confidently say that introducing this building into the lives of the people who would be most affected by it improve their lives and make them happier?

The actual implementation is a separate issue – it turns into a benchmarking game whose expertise still extends beyond the role of the architect but is relatively straightforward to orientating your conceptual goals.

The TL;DR

Architecture’s solution defines a world for other people. If we can’t be bothered to understand how others see the world first, our solutions will never be more than a hit and miss. This is not opinion – this is an ethical responsibility of a professional.

I don’t want to be a selfish architect.

Life & much, much more

Game of Homes – upcoming Architecture Revue

Have you ever watched Game of Thrones? I haven’t, but that hasn’t stopped me or the rest of the folks from our faculty from creating this year’s annual Architecture Revue performance.

Game of Thrones - Architecture Revue

If you’re in Sydney and want to kill some time, come along and watch the show. If Australian university humour isn’t quite your thing, come along anyway to listen to the band.

Apparently it’s got knife-wielding priests, ghostly giraffes, and moose- but don’t take it from me, take it from yourself after you watch the show.

OK, enough blatant advertising, and apologies for the terrible pun.

For those interested, my main role is as musical director, though of course I do a bunch of Audio/Visual stuff too, and I shall post a bit more about that later.