STUDIO: thesis
YEAR: five (5)
DATE: november, 2011

TOPIC: parametric retail urbanism
LOCATION: los angeles, california

The Architectural 'Program' and the Software Interface
by Evan Shieh, with support from Alvin Huang (principal, synthesis design + architecture)

The terms 'program' and 'software' are loosely thrown around in the architectural field today as a means-to-an-end to generate architectural form. The design of both software and program, however, is not only the design of the end product - architectural form - itself, but more importantly the design of the systems and data that make up these increasingly co-dependent terms. In common with both, is this idea of the 'program' as a definable set of scripts or activities that organizes other systems. In other words, we can view both 'software' and 'program' as similar systems that are themselves organizations of interfaces, programmed to behave in certain ways. Furthermore, the more we think about how and why humans interact and move through space - or inhabit 'program' - the more and more we discover that information-systems or 'digital space' drives urban space. This 'data mining' gathered from personal phones, GPS systems, internet networking is beginning to permeate everything, including even a person's physical movements through space, revealing otherwise unnoticed patterns embedded in human behavior.

As such, today's information driven environment will render the traditional Modernist notions of the architectural 'program' irrelevant. Interfacing with 'control space' or 'information space' will need to become synonymous with interfacing with architectural 'program' and 'software' in order for architects to continue to play a key role in the evolution of our cities. Thus, a combined agenda of architecture and software 'interfacing' will need to emerge, potentially forming a hybrid design discipline that will have less to do with the form-generating outputs of software that uses architectural structures (i.e. Second Life) or architecture that uses software outputs (i.e. parametricsim as a design aesthetic)1 , and in the end more to do with a convergence of the social and cultural drivers of both through the notion of their shared 'program'.....



..... Our built environment, the city, is now being driven by this market of information. The city, and as a result the architecture we design, is being rendered less and less though visual composition, and more and more empirically computed through statistics, demographics, and economic performance. If the past centuries' conception of the urban environment can be represented by the Nolli map, then the 21st centuries conception of urbanism can be represented by the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) map. Nolli's 1748 map of Rome is celebrated for using figure-ground to differentiate the densities of the physical built environment in relationship to the city's public spaces of streets, plazas, and courtyards. It represents the generation of the city through the spatial properties of proximity and physical continuity. Such a description of the urban city no longer necessarily applies to the 21st century metropolis. Contour maps today no longer signify geological configurations but rather altitudes of wealth, demographic migrations, spending potentials all generated from data analysis and computation. The GIS map, in opposition to the Nolli one, is a 'scenario analysis system' that forecasts and optimizes the city through abstract phenomena like risk, resource, and cost. According to Sze Tsung Leong in his pamphlet Ulterior Spaces, the "primary engine of urbanization is now the market." As such, the evolution of our cities are becoming all the more sensitive and susceptible to the volatility of the market.....

[1748 NOLLI MAP]


.....As a result of this, the architectural 'program' today faces multiple paths of evolution and challenges. Architecture is now a product of the evolving notions of the modernist 'Program' vs. the sphere of 'information space' that is driving our built environment. This hyperglobalized, progressively mobile, and capitalized landscape requires that program incorporate the performative and phenomenological aspects of control space.

Hans Ibeling's term "Supermodernism" in his novel Architecture in the Age of Globalization describes architectural program's response to this era of intense globalization. To Ibeling, the architectural program is an "ideal of boundless and undefined space predominating an age of information and technology, a kind of supermodernity." Traditional notions of place and activity can now happen anywhere and everywhere in the digital sphere, undermining the postmodern beliefs that architecture must have an genuine association with context, identity, and meaning. Anthony Vidler argues a contrasting theory on program in the digital age. In Towards a Theory of Architectural Program, Vidler terms program as "the description of the spatial dimensions, spatial relationships, and other physical conditions required for the convenient performance of specific a process in time." The resultant problem, is the need for a way to convert this notion of 'program' into architectural form.

As Vidler and Ibeling both outline, the disjunction between program interfacing and software interfacing occurs in the translation of this architecture to physical form. According to Ibeling, if architecture really is freed from its contextual relationships, then it is also free to be as aesthetically excessive as it wants. But is that really the case? Must technology driven architecture generate frivolous formalism?.....

.....Like Leong states in Ulterior Space, spaces like Walmart are automatically generated from control space because it "spatially represents the apogee of logistical and statistical efficiency, but also standing for the ubiquitous wasteland of display racks... the boredom of shopping.".....


Rather than just accepting the outcome of software generated architecture as the status quo, we must generate architecture today by examining 'program' as a network of informational bodies that correspond to their digital counterparts in 'control space'. For example, MVRDV is a firm that develops its own software to order, predict, and generate how the systematic programs that make up their buildings can potentially perform. In essence, because programs can be conceived of as 'information' - an information of human movement and its relation to the habitat - then this type of information can be distilled and computed to derive architecture.....


.....MVRDV's attempt at a solution is the Regionmaker. It is in essence a software program that functions as a collection of multiple analytical tools, combing the functions of search engines, browsers, and graphical interfaces. Using outputs of information from GIS (Geographic Information Systems) that was previously discussed, the program is able to "establish real and optimum sets of regions... so that program scenarios can be forecasted and simulated."

Within the software, the relationship between these two regions of data collection and visualization is modeled parametrically and mapped to generate programmatic 'datascapes' that begin to break the traditional barriers of hard-ware and soft-ware. To Maas, the software "parameters can be seen as spatial laws or social laws"18 and are defined through urban analysis rather than aesthetic or formal ones. These intangible 'parameters' represent themselves as sliders in the software that generates a much more reactive model of flowcharts that "depict possible linkages between programs" and represent data-led options available to designers.


A resultant architecture that is generated from the software Regionmaker MVRDV's Dutch Pavilion for the EXPO 2000 in Germany. It is a humorous construction of alternation floors of green space and interior workspace, topped with wind turbines and a rainwater collection pond that is that is then wrapped with an exterior stairway. While formally comical to some, it is intriguing because it is the built implication of the software generated choices given by Regionmaker. It is democratic, ironic, and polemical: democratic because information inputted into the software generates an equal unbiased collection of laws, programs, and structure, ironic because many of these forces (both intangible and tangible) often conflict and contradict one another, producing a bizarre form, polemic because the rationalized consequences of the 'datascapes' are actually constructed and juxtaposed in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.....



.....there is potential to treat program design as interface design. No matter the medium of design, program is always the filtering and interpolation of the information of human activity into a specific design scheme. This is not unlike the design of software, or other interfaces, and is ultimately the design of the information 'network'. Nowhere does this new mode of thinking replace the need for designers and thinkers, rather it utilizes interfaces to drive program and is a sophisticated tool whereby the interactions of humans within space can be optimized.....


.....Ultimately, program as a design strategy is still just projection, even a speculation. The human activity that occupies 'program' can be predictable, but uncontrollable. The idea of "software becoming architecture" means that software is not only utilized as a formal environmental generator (as it mostly is today) but also that the interface design of the software be a projective and intelligent conception of how human activity can and should be organized in architecture. Today, software driven by "control space" intelligence is still underestimated because it is still viewed as an 'emergent' formal tool rather than one of intelligent 'governance'. Rather than a problem-solving interface, software needs to become a strategic, projective, and intelligent interface. Only then can the discipline of architecture and the design of 'program' navigate our information-driven 'digital space' that drives our physical environment today.

// Evan Shieh

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