CECIL BALMOND IN CONVERSATION WITH ROLAND SNOOKS
Roland Snooks: For several decades your work has engaged complex systems and
the development of non-linear algorithmic design strategies. What motivated your
initial interest in complexity and how do you frame your notion of non-linear
Cecil Balmond: When I began to analyze the design process itself I realized that I
was working in a classical formalist framework, involving the current traditional
model of drawing the site, with a boundary to define the extent in which you work,
So essentially the whole basis of design, as I saw it, was a reductive process. In this
process of taking space, framing or gridding it down, I felt intuitively a sense of
being trapped, a closing down. If you are outside the framework within which you
are designing, you become God the creator. It was very much the universal idea of
the central source of creativity, projecting down on a site as it were. So many of the
schemes on which I worked early in my career operated in this way. Even with very
renowned architects it was a framing down.
So I started analyzing a lot of painting and music. At the time I was learning a
major piece by Bach, Chaconne in D minor.- one of the greatest pieces of music
ever. Playing it on classical guitar I realized how important it was to look at the
bigger picture, and that it would be quite challenging and drastic to look at locality
only as if nothing else mattered. This was completely the opposite - the inverse - of
my formal training. So I started thinking about a theoretical approach that would
look at one locality and maybe another locality, quite independent - two different
thoughts. And as they proliferate and intermingle or clash they provide hybrid or
rhythmic situations, juxtapositions.
I then became interested in locality and how to project locality. It was the mid 80s,
and I was reading complexity theory at the time. It struck me that the only way was
through feedback. I started doing very small simple tests for myself. I drew a set of
grid points and then would draw a line and slightly shift the line, then duplicate it,
rotate it and overlap it and see what happened. There were startlingly different outcomes
every time. That start was important, and then the feedback added complexity.
The fundamental thing was that the outcome was always a surprise.
RS: In discussing genetic algorithms with John Holland, I raised the concern that
the fitness criteria would result in the search for an optimal position. The point that
116 INFORMAL AGENCY 117
Students: Andrew Gierke,
Pablo Kohan, Daniel Whipple
+ Difeng Zhou.
Instructors: Cecil Balmond +
John Holland makes is that he doesn’t see the role of genetic algorithms as being
optimization, but evolutionary change. So as a wider question - which I posed to
John as well - if there are already fitness criteria embedded in the design process
does that set too much of an a priori intent and inhibit emergence?
CB: For me, yes. Seeding fitness criteria at the beginning is a problem. I think that
it limits the search. It takes away part of the surprise. I find that the old Vitruvian
triad of firmness, commodity and delight still holds. It is important to have good
solutions that cause you to smile when you see them.
RS: And those are qualities that emerge?
CB: Yes. However if you deal with fitness criteria there is much less emergence.
So my own method has never been to limit that search. I maximize the search, but
then I go back to certain limitations of reality and pragmatics.
RS: To expand on this discussion of fitness criteria, it is important to consider
intuition - how you play with the tools. When you begin you have no intuitive
understanding of what the process generates, but as you iteratively design through
the system you build some form of intuition.
CB: It is an intuition of prescribing something in density or porosity where you
open and close, where you serrate where you stagger. Knotting, folding, branching
are fundamental deep archetypal forms and your feelings as you go through these
forms respond to certain sites or certain conditions. In a way it is like planting
some kind of design code in reference to the site.
RS: It is interesting that you describe those as forms, I would describe them as
procedures. This is perhaps a key to understanding the way you think about form
and procedure as a unified construct. Sanford Kwinter describes formalism as being
the act of formation as opposed to formalism being concerned with static objects. 1
That is clearly something you share.
CB: In fact, Informal has been misunderstood as a word. It is very much in the
RS: Often algorithmic design is considered as a formal pursuit. What do you see
as the role of algorithmic design - or more specifically multi-agent design - in terms
of the self-organization of program and circulation, that are issues of distribution
rather than form?
CB: My own experience of self-organization is that it is a powerful tool for urban
planning conditions involving complex data sets.
RS: The idea of designing a complex system, such as a city, through top down
strategies has always seemed to me antithetical, or at best reductive. The discussion
of multi-agent design at an urban scale – swarm urbanism – enables the design of
complex systems through complex systems. This is essentially replacing the master
plan with the master algorithm or master strategy.
CB: Correct. For me that is the most fertile area. I have no doubt that this has to be
a way forward and it is very powerful when applied. I think that when it comes to
tectonic forms it is much harder to see a correlation because of the innate non-formal
nature of agents. Unless the agents can carry volume and deposit matter, they
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tend toward strand solutions. At the moment I find they strand too much, they are
point sets and it is hard to get volume deposited in an intelligent way. Buildings are
not data sets - unlike urban planning, traffic management or landscape that can be
interpreted through points of data. However when you get beam and column - continuously
connected - and diaphram, where gravity is working completely on the
piece, that is when agent based design is problematic unless there is some way of
putting gravity into the system. It is not to say that we won’t get there, but I think
that is a problem at the moment.
RS: One of the fundamental shifts in design through agent-based models is that you
no longer exercise macro design intent. Instead, design intent is seeded into a set
of autonomous design agents that interact at a local level and give rise to emergent
behavior at the macro level. You have talked about how that would operate
at an urban scale, thinking about urbanism not as a series of sequentially topdown
design decisions, but instead as a set of agents that carry design intent and
interact locally. What are the implications for tectonics and structure if we begin to
conceptualize structure solely from a local standpoint and challenge the top-down
hierarchical nature of these systems?
CB: Well I think it is there - I can’t dismiss it - I think this has potential if the agents
can produce sheets and volumes.
RS: I think this is the most significant problem – something we have experienced in
the studio at Penn – the problem of how an agent operating locally understands a
global condition such as topology, particularly surface topology. This is perhaps a
way of engaging our on-going discussion about the relationship between the linear
and the non-linear, or the explicit and the generative. It has become clear to me
that topology is the most difficult aspect of design to engage within an emergent
CB: But it is possible, as happened with the Serpentine Pavilion that I designed with
Toyo Ito in 2002. Interestingly enough it developed its topology by folding. So in
theory if you go down the idea of manifolds you should be able to make agents
or an algorithm that then folds. Of course then you are heading towards a known
topology, so maybe you are right, the normative cannot be escaped.
RS: So you see the relationship between agent and topology as an a priori
CB: Probably, but I would like to think that in time a swarm can create surface
topology, but it can’t until it can create membrane, because that is the source of
all topology. You can’t escape surface definition regardless of how curvilinear you
make form. It is hard to see how that might happen at the moment – to get smoothness
that leads to membranes, that leads to topology that could be defined. So the
system itself defines topology. That is where our ambition should lie.
RS: I totally agree. I think this is the real challenge of any non-linear design
methodology: how does a bottom up design strategy comprehend a global
condition such as topology.
CB: There is another area - that I was beginning to talk to your business partner
Rob [Stuart-Smith] about recently - of mathematical form called numerical differentiation,
which is approximated with point sets. The more refined the approximation
the closer you are to real surface. However you never have surface, you simply
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have a point set. That must be an area that maps easily on to agent behavior. It is
a mathematical construct where you transfer the continuum into the discreet. And
that is a valid mathematical way, but it only approximates, it is never quite surface.
This kind of work still presupposes that we know the surface a priori.
RS: This interaction is very interesting, because I would classify generative
design process in 3 modes. The first morphological: the manipulation of known
topologies. The second are unstructured fields: a set of points or agents that you
extract higher-level geometry from. The third are hybrid conditions that operate
through a constant interaction between high level topologies and lower level
agency. This latter category is perhaps the most productive area, certainly the most
CB: I think it is probably the most productive, because if you actually look at the
design process itself. The way I do this is to switch between hand crafted sketch
and computer output.
RS: It is a way to get feedback between top down and bottom up.
CB: Yes, and I switch between jumping templates if you like, between the computer
and the hand. So I think what you are saying is very valid. To jump between
normative topology and the agent will indeed be a powerful tool. I think that must
be a necessary next step before we understand more about creating topologies with
RS: In a recent collaborative project with Kokkugia for the Yeosu Expo Pavilion,
Tom Wiscombe coined the phrase ‘messy computation’ in reference to the process
we developed of operating back and forth between algorithmic strategies and
explicit modeling, each informing the other. Modeling techniques would be codified
into scripts and the output of scripts would become systematized into explicit
modeling procedures. It sounds as though a similar jump backward and forward
operates in your work.
CB: Yeah, dirty computing. I think that the necessary prerequisite of the Informal
was a kind of impurity based on early classical definitions. For me it is not impure;
it is pure. The conditions that I engage with which are hybrid and jumping, are all
to do with a purity of search but of course in our language they are impure, so we
use dirty computing and impurity, compared to the formal conditions.
RS: This sort of dirty computing is a short cut to deal with intuition in the
process and to be able to describe top-down decisions that bottom-up systems are
incapable of making.
CB: Correct. I think that the danger of all of this - and you see this in student work
– is that a process is started that somehow has all the intelligence and decisions a
priori to give you everything, and you just can’t do that. You have to be able to
get out and come back in, switch the process, and never lose sight of the origins of
what you were searching for. It’s symmetry breaking - breaking the symmetries that
you are working with in the most general sense.
RS: This desire of systematizing the entire design process that you talk about is
certainly something we see in student work. A misconception often emerges that if
something is procedural or algorithmic, it has greater objectivity – something which
obviously neither of us would agree with. Of course a process that always stays
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within the computer has the ability to operate with a much faster rate of feedback
and therefore I would argue it has a greater potential for emergence. The problem
of course is that this requires more criteria, more judgment, to be embedded
into the computational process. The problematic aspect of this is that evaluation
becomes a quantifiable criterion. This is in opposition to the way you describe
architecture, which is always qualitative.
CB: Always. I don’t think there is any other way. If you really look at [Iannis]
Xenakis’s work, it is not that successful where his architecture is based on simple
musical scales and musical intervals. These are essentially mapping, cosmetic mapping,
and that for me has no rigor - it is not fundamental.
RS: This differentiation between mapping and generative design is critical.
Mapping is obviously a way of visualizing something else. I would claim that
generative design is not about how you reify a known data set or pattern, but it
is the ability to take design intent and embed it within a process. The generative
process then self-organizes to generate the design artifact. These two processes are
CB: I’ve always stood far away from mapping. The early blob work sadly was
essentially mapping. The very earliest work in that trajectory was taking thermodynamic
equations or equations of viscosity, visualizing them in a computer in a
non-linear process, then mapping, or freeze framing them into architecture. That
is completely meaningless, because what the equation is doing is not what you are
looking for in the quality of a building.
RS: I see agent-based algorithms - or perhaps any generative algorithm – as
operating in two main modes, although not mutually exclusively. One is selforganization
to solve a complex problem. For example, this might be selforganization
of program or structure. The second is the generation of emergent
patterns or forms or affects, which is an attempt to capture non-linear behavior.
Would you categorize algorithmic operation this way and which, or both, do you
see as productive?
CB: I think that they are both productive. Program is the least understood area
of architecture; it has just become a word people use. In the case of buildings like
hospitals, courthouses etc., where there is institutionalized program, there must be
great potential to rework program in that sense, using agent-based behavior and
understanding relationships between agents.
RS: One of the important opportunities I see in agent-based design is rethinking
the hierarchies that exist within architecture. Hierarchies, of course, exist in both
the design process and within the resultant buildings. Perhaps you could talk
about non-linear design methodologies and their potential for unraveling these
hierarchies, whether they are tectonic hierarchies or hierarchies between program
and form. What opportunities do you see in this regard?
CB: Take as an example the Serpentine Pavilion. In the pavilion it was the first run
of the algorithm that set the primary structural form. The extension of the algorithm
set the bracing forms and the translation cut it into a known typology. I find
hierarchy dropping out through the process, so I don’t have to seed hierarchy, but it
is a central problem of structure - of the vertical and the horizontal - and it is a constant
problem that will never go away between the loads to the ground and loads
distributed in space. If you look at the solution I proposed for Arnhem station, the
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eakthrough was in a non-linear sense thinking that there was no column, that
there were only zones of attraction of collectors, and that led to walls becoming
like shock absorbers. The whole language changed in my mental framework, so
that columns stop being columns, beams stop being beams, walls stop being walls.
Instead they become load collectors, load attractors, zones, gathering points, vortices.
In fact one of the famous columns is a massive vortex. Where no conventional
way could have solved the big span with a thin membrane, instead I used a vortex,
a knot form. So that non-linear language of column into knot is fundamental and I
think that this whole area is not completely understood. Knot theory has to be incorporated
into this work. We need mathematicians to work with architects. Units
such as the NSO 2 and AGU should be doing work like that, and we haven’t been –
at least not consistently. Nobody has. This is something I would like to spend more
time on personally, because I think there will be a significant gain with interwoven
strand-based agent behavior, because the more you knot the more you create stiffness
RS: And knot theory of course is inherently about topology, which is the
problematic aspect of agent based design.
CB: Exactly. It is the missing thing, because fundamentally the early work of chaos
theory done by [Jules Henri] Poincaré was done using manifolds in space, space
RS: It is all topological.
CB: So I think that this is a huge area of exploration to come. It needs three disciplines;
agent-based designers, knot theory people, and mathematicians who have a
graphic sense. Structurally knots give massive redundancy and basically non-linear
work produces redundancy, which allows various solution formats. So to reverse
the earlier question, you make your own hierarchy when you are redundant. You
choose network paths.
RS: From a bottom up structure that is highly redundant, hierarchies emerge.
1 Sanford Kwinter, Far from Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, Barcelona: Actar,
2 The Non-Linear Systems Organization at the University of Pennsylvania, is directed by Cecil Balmond