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


Previous spread:


Students: Andrew Gierke,

Pablo Kohan, Daniel Whipple

+ Difeng Zhou.

Instructors: Cecil Balmond +

Roland Snooks.

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



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

generative process.

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



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



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

fundamentally different.

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



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

and redundancy.

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.

CB: Exactly.


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

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