Every project made with a computer expresses a relationship between aesthetics and technology. The historical progress of technology works in two dimensions – it allows us to view novel inventions through the lens of existing archetypes, while simultaneously reinvigorating existing art forms with new aesthetic possibilities. It is no accident that the term architecture is used by computer programmers to describe the hierarchical, rule-based logic of code, a world in which the grammar and syntax of a programming language must be obeyed. Most of the time, the inner workings of the computer are explained by analogous artefacts drawn from our pre-digital world; the monitor is a solid wall of projected light, the touchscreen is a pen of infinite ink, and silicon-based memory is an extension of our own mind. Despite its superficial similarity to the past, the speed and accuracy of the computer has opened up the expressive potential of the fine arts, especially in the realm of geometry.
Michael Hansmeyer describes himself as a computational Architect, using processes and methods grounded in the virtual realm to invent new forms of architecture. He takes the algorithm – a set of mathematical procedures – and applies it to three-dimensional shapes in order to expand the vocabulary of inhabitable space. Where programmers appropriate the language of design, Hansmeyer takes the techniques of computing and applies them to architecture. For his ‘Sixth Order’ project, he uses a Greek column as his starting point, continuously dividing and recombining its geometric lines, resulting in a column that is both uncannily familiar and appealingly alien. In addition to questioning the how and why of this new aesthetic, the explicit use of the algorithmic process raises issues about the limitations of technological creativity.
By pushing the limits of the hardware and software hardware they use, architects and artists investigating digital media are more prone to their computer crashing than most. No matter how fast a program runs, any computer-based process is prone to the crash, a sudden abrupt halt in an invisible, abstract mechanism. The crash is the trickster version of the Deus ex Machina, preventing users from doing what was intended, and telling them that they have pushed the system too far. The paradox of using computers creatively is that the absolute deterministic certainty of commands always carries with them the possibility of unexpected, unjustified and unexplained failure.
In an ideal physical world, the rules of the Roman Architect and theorist Vitruvius hold true – that a built structure must exhibit the qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – it must be solid, functional, and beautiful. The transition between that Apollonian Classicism and the creative chaos that technology brings is how the plastic arts progress – with one eye to the crystalline past and one eye to the undifferentiated future. Although it is usually difficult to dramatize the struggle between human and machine, we are fortunate in that the product of Hansmeyer’s labour is a body of work that we can see, experience, and inhabit.
QThe White Review — You describe yourself as an architect and programmer – what is the essential difference between how mathematicians and programmers use algorithms and abstract formulae as the basis of their system?
AMichael Hansmeyer — I’m not a mathematician, but my understanding is that the difference between an algorithm and pure mathematics is that algorithm has many different steps – and often the same step is repeated again and again. Each of these iterations evaluates something and the result goes into the next operation. But in mathematics, a geometric shape may be pre-determined by a formula. It’s fundamentally different – you don’t have this feedback loop, this succession of step after step.
QThe White Review — So within this feedback loop, where does your role come in?
AMichael Hansmeyer — The algorithms that I use rely on me, as the Architect, to evaluate the forms that are being produced. Questions arise such as, are you judging the forms for interest, for beauty, for surprise? It’s difficult for me to evaluate them, and to teach computers to do so has been impossible. So, the role of the Architect is still very much there. In a sense, the forms are deterministic, and there’s no randomness – the same process will produce the same form time and time again. But at the same time the geometry is not entirely predictable; because there are so many different surfaces, and so many different factors involved that it gets very difficult to think ahead, about what happens to all twenty million polygons.
Often you create something, put it away, and return to work on later. The interesting thing about the algorithm is that you don’t just work on one shape, but on an entire family of shapes. You get variants and permutations, like ‘children’, for lack of a better word. You can say, I like this part of this child, and that part of that child, and combine them again. The Architect is like the orchestrator of these processes.
QThe White Review — I’m reminded of experimental musicians such as Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, who would use loops of tape to record, repeat and modify fragments of sound. With this method, there is the possibility of an infinite loop, where it just goes back and forth without reaching anywhere. Or it reaches a homeostasis, an equilibrium where the loop itself fades away…
AMichael Hansmeyer — Or a third possibility, where you run out of memory, which is what happens with most of my processes.
QThe White Review — So that’s the actual limit state – one of memory?
AMichael Hansmeyer — Usually that’s the limit – you either produce a form which is too big, or too dense to be displayed. Sometimes you have to break the form down into different parts, process them separately, and stitch it together afterwards.
QThe White Review — Whenever you are testing the limits of these tools, you tend to run into problems of crashing, and are able to use that constructively. That’s quite unlike the needs of a computer game, where you want the simulation of smoothness, virtual reality, a continuous animation. Where does your loop end?
AMichael Hansmeyer — Well, using the idea of the loop is partially correct because my process does repeat. But it shouldn’t be spoken of as just a loop, rather it is a series of five to ten iterations; with my process there’s a definite end point. Then it’s over.
QThe White Review — I’m particularly interested in how you appropriated a Greek column, which exists in the language of architecture as both a historical form and structural object. Since the column is already subdivided into base, column and capital, can you describe how your own process of division relates to these proportions?
AMichael Hansmeyer — The reason for using a column was exactly that – I wanted to use an archetype that expressed the zeitgeist of a particular period in architecture. Another reason I used a Doric column is that I wanted the input shape to be comparable with the end result. If I had started with a pyramid, it probably wouldn’t have produced a column. So, the division into a capital, base, and middle provided some important information to begin with. In antiquity, the rules of the Doric prescribed how these components are arranged, their proportions, and how much ornamentation there is in each one. However, the rules of my new column are purely on the level of the process. It’s not like a classical system, where you can work out the parts of each element based on a rule of proportion. Here, the question is how the different iterations of an algorithm relate to each other.
QThe White Review — Would you say that if you had started from a pyramid, or some other simplified platonic solid, you would have gotten a triangular form? Or have you reached the point where you can predict the end result based on a radically different beginning?
AMichael Hansmeyer — Although it is possible to create a column from a cube, it’s more useful to start with something that is closely related to the final output. That said, the process is so malleable that you can produce anything from anything. That is a slight exaggeration, but it really depends on how much you want to customize the process. You can either arbitrarily set the proportions on a piece by piece basis, or you can establish one simple rule for everything. For example, you could set a single rule that says: the amount that each surface is divided and folded is based upon its surface area.
QThe White Review — The method of subdivision is fascinating because it’s a mathematical process that goes back to Euclid. He would investigate, using simple projection and division, how to get a pentagon from a hexagon, or how to inscribe a circle within a square. He would proceed from self-evident axioms to derive a kind of absolute truth, drawn out in space.
AMichael Hansmeyer — Sometimes, I use the metaphor of origami to explain my process, where a set of procedures and folds takes you from a flattened square to a recognizable shape, like a swan. However, in the virtual world, it’s more like a Euclidean operation, and you free yourself from the physical constraints of origami. In fact, the virtual world also frees you from Euclid, who was only about with how you draw forms within a particular system of constraints. By bringing geometry into the computer, you free yourself completely from these as well; surfaces can intersect, stretch, shrink, and so on. All this wouldn’t be possible if you were still in the physical world.
QThe White Review — I find this a lot with my own work, which is the result of an intuitive analogue procedure, where I make a set of modules and shapes that are assembled together into a larger installation. But I’m still constrained by the properties of physical materials. When I’ve started using new fabrication techniques like 3D printing, all of a sudden there are certain rules of geometry that can be broken – temporarily – but which then have to be maintained to produce a solid object.
AMichael Hansmeyer — That’s exactly what I face – some ideas really catch up with you when you try to materialise them. All this freedom you just had in the virtual world suddenly becomes problematic.
QThe White Review — I love the idea of virtual surfaces that intersect – that there is a set of points in space where two things exist simultaneously. In terms of Newtonian physics, it simply isn’t possible for two bodies to coexist at the same point; but in the virtual world, that point of zero volume is not a problem. In fact it is the natural state of things, where the world and everything within is a singularity.
Going back to the columns, can you describe how you exhibited these columns in the Gwangju Biennale? A group of them was arranged like a mini temple, surrounding a raised rectangular floor. Quite often I see projects exhibited in isolation – it’s good to see them creating a collective space.
AMichael Hansmeyer — The wish, going back to architecture, was to make an immersive space. Initially I wanted to create a room full of columns but ultimately the budget wasn’t there. The simplest way that we could create a complete environment turned out to be the use of mirrors. Since the columns are designed to look different from the front and the back, their mirrored form makes it appear that you are looking at more than one column. Almost by default, we ended up at this temple-like formation by virtue of having two mirrors, positioned squarely in the room. The installation was called the ‘Sixth Order’ – I hesitated for a long time, but then suddenly I felt comfortable with it.
QThe White Review — Were you hesitating because it was sacrilegious to add to the Classical orders?
AMichael Hansmeyer — Not exactly, more because I was torn whether these were something entirely new, or something that was related to what came before…
QThe White Review — …Or derivative?
AMichael Hansmeyer — Yes, in a way they are derivative, because they play also with proportions in the same way as the old orders. Also, the classical column orders are very similar to each other. But I’m simply ignoring many of the rules that went into the old orders, so I’m not sure if I’m quite doing them justice.
QThe White Review — What difficulties have you found when moving from the digital world to the physical one? Has this allowed you to experiment, or are you trying to find the most accurate way to fabricate your digital models?
AMichael Hansmeyer — I hesitated for a long time to fabricate them, because I didn’t think I would be able to reproduce them faithfully. Obviously there is the problem with the huge amount of information, with millions of surfaces that you can’t even load into the computer without making it crash. On the other hand, something else daunting is what you mentioned before – because you have had so much freedom with virtual geometry, you have to go back and reconstruct things again. With fabrication, suddenly all these practical considerations come into it – we didn’t want pieces breaking off so we had to re-draw the edges, we had to hollow it out, or it would be too heavy.
QThe White Review — You mentioned that there is a whole different inner world to these forms. Are you using your techniques to generate interior spaces as well?
AMichael Hansmeyer — The project I’m currently working on in Taiwan is a cupola, or dome, around three metres in diameter. It has exterior and interior, an actual thickness. With the columns I was thinking purely in terms of surface, and with the cupola I’m thinking in terms of volume – two surfaces, inner and outer, that don’t intersect. In future, a third step could perhaps result of a more complex relationship between surface and interior.
QThe White Review — You briefly mentioned the idea of the zeitgeist; are there other aesthetic ideas that you find more easily expressed in German rather than in English?
AMichael Hansmeyer — Actually, I find a much larger contrast between Europe and Japan. In Europe we’re afraid to speak of words like beauty – it’s almost a taboo, especially in Switzerland. We just came back from a workshop in Japan, and that was very much in their brief – to create something beautiful, something sensual. If you’d say ‘create something sensual’ here, they’d say, are you insane? Although in Europe, beauty is always implicit. It’s just not explicit, but is something that has to be talked around.
QThe White Review — It seems that during periods when beauty itself was an explicit ambition in a particular art form – that’s when it starts to go really over the top, like with Mannerism or Rococo. When Aesthetics is the only thing, it loses its power, because it becomes isolated from how life is lived, or the means of production of a particular time. In the Japanese way, beauty arises through a process, not as an external quality.
AMichael Hansmeyer — Before I visited Japan, I had seen some pictures of buildings that I was sure were designed through an algorithmic process on the computer. But it turned out that not a single one was! At the same time, they went about the design process so methodically – with steps they followed again and again and again, just like an algorithm. They didn’t need to bring it into the computer, because it just came from their way of working, and resulted in the buildings looking the way they do.
QThe White Review — I’m reminded of an observation about architecture school in Japan. For their final project, students would start off with an incredibly simple object – like boxes or sticks. And all they would do, for the whole year, would be to stack boxes or to bind sticks together. But by the end they’d have some of the most amazing creations! In Europe there’s all these currents you feel you should integrate – different cultural, socio-economic factors that can determine how complex your work becomes. But in Japan it’s the opposite – an additive, intuitive approach – and at the end, you can have something that stands out.
AMichael Hansmeyer — I was at Kazuo Sejima’s office Architect of the 2010 Serpentine Pavilion and the New Museum in New York] and I saw hundreds of models, all a foot square, all of the same museum. The team of ten people was successively evolving these models, working both in parallel and sequentially. Details of some early models were accepted and fixed, while other details were further mutated and refined over many steps. It reminded me of my own process, except my assistants are inside the computer!
QThe White Review — Reflecting on how work is produced today, how do you see your own practice evolving in the next few years?
AMichael Hansmeyer — Needless to say, it’s a struggle, because producing these models the way I would like to is very labour intensive. It’s just much more difficult to make a column with millions of angled surfaces than a single straight column! Part of my work is about super-specificity and ultra-high resolution, and that is inherently costly. Sure, we could produce it in a low-cost country but then you have to supervise it. Or you can make it in Switzerland, but that’s super expensive.
QThe White Review — It seems that fabricating your columns has a lot in common with a jeweler working on the hundreds of facets on a diamond, which is a totally different method of production than the industrialised parts that are usually used in architecture. And that necessarily takes more time.
AMichael Hansmeyer — Yes, but if you look at the inside of a Rococo church, that must have taken fifty workers ten years to build. I feel that with these digital tools, we are actually very fast, but still much slower than with mass production. Where do I see it going? At the moment, I’m trying to do what is feasible, and to do what I can to move to the scale of an immersive environment. So every project is a step towards that.
Michael Hansmeyer is an architect and programmer who explores the use of algorithms and computation to generate architectural form. He is currently based in the CAAD group at ETH’s architecture department in Zurich.
Lawrence Lek is an artist whose work investigates processes of natural growth, our perception of organic form, and the effect of technology on inhabitable space. He is currently developing installations in New York and in London, where he is a Designer in Residence at the Design Museum.