PS Cast: Architecture

My mind boggles at a variety of modern architecture.


[Musicalish Intro]
Good morning ladies and gentlemen it’s Paul Spooner on the Paul Spooner Podcast.

Early early this morning (late last night) I was looking around on the Internet trying to find out if anyone else had done the stuff that I’m trying to do with Fledgeling. Stuff with subdivision and parametric generation of geometry.

So I was looking around, and there have been a lot of people who have experimented with this sort of thing. But I found one in particular that was just hilariously misleading!

So, in architecture, you want to make something functional and beautiful. And it seems like the architecture people (or at least this one architecture person that I found) has kind of assumed that anything can be made functional, and so you can just make it as beautiful as you want (or as strange looking as you want). It was a modern art kind of thing, but he was doing it with computational methods, which was very interesting. So I looked on his site and he has some very very nice looking renders. And I don’t know, actually, if they are renders, or if they are actual objects because I think he does 3d printing where he dose some sort of computational modeling and then he has it printed out after he does the generation. He’s got some sort of parametric software that he’s written that will generate this stuff… or that he’s, uh, had someone else write for him.

So he’s trying to generate these architectural ideas or something, I’m not exactly sure, but he’s completely forgotten about function. And of course this is especially repugnant to me because I’m an engineer and that’s all I do all day is function. The appearance, for me, is irrelevant. As long as it works properly, that’s great. And usually it ends up looking nice if it works really well, because it’s an elegant design. So I’m trying to make something that’s functional, and this guy was trying to make that was beautiful.

But the extent to which he has forgotten the functional purpose is astounding! (and maybe he would say the same about the things I make)

So when you’re designing something in architecture, the function of architectural objects is to serve as a living space. And it can be a living space for labor, or a living space for relaxation. Generally, those are the two main divisions that things fall into. I mean, you could have something that’s inbetween, but functionally (if you want a long-lasting culture) you’re going to need children (because a long-lasting culture can’t live longer than the lifespan of the people who populate it). So you need children. And to have children you need a place where they are safe, and usually work-places are not safe (because you’re moving around, using a lot of energy, you have heavy stuff). So there’s this kind of bifurcation that naturally happens where you’ve got “homes” that have children in them and “work-places” which don’t have children in them. And then, as a result, you also have homes which are generally “domestic” which have women and children because women generally take care of children (as I’ve gone over in another post) and then work-places which are generally masculine, they’ve got men working in them, because the men aren’t taking care of the children and so they’re working to support everyone.

But there are some features which are shared among these two, you can’t immediately go into “oh, well, houses are completely different from work-places.” They’re not! They are all built on Earth (so far) and so you need something to keep off the rain, because generally water interferes with the things that you’re doing, either by getting your children wet and making it hard for them to sleep and getting mildew in their hair and stuff like that. Or getting your work wet, and usually if you have work that’s being done in a building you don’t want it getting wet. If you wanted it getting wet, you would do it outside without a building.

So, buildings protect against the rain, they protect against the sun, generally they protect against the environment. Anything that’s in the environment. Fluid motion (water and air) radiation from the sun (heat and cold) all these kinds of things. That’s what a building is designed to do, it’s designed to create a controlled environment. A designed environment.

But inside of a building, generally, you’re not going to be just sitting around doing nothing. At a work-place, there are things happening. There are operations being performed of some nature. At the very least, even if there are no major industrial operations, there are still operations performed by humans, and humans produce waste products. So you’ve got operations at work. And then of course at home you’ve got operations as well. Children produce a huge amount of waste, because they’re still learning how to be efficient and they’re still learning how to do things, so they run around and make messes and all kinds of stuff.

So one of the shared things, among buildings (alongside their general function (which is to create a controlled environment)) is to be as easy to clean as possible. A work-place is going to have lots of detritus lying around, lots of extra stuff, lots of bits and bobs and odds and ends that are spalled off from the processes that you are performing at this location. And even if it’s just an office where people sit around and work on paper-work or computers all day, you’re still going to have dust and lint from their clothing, you’re going to have detritus from their bodies, so there’s gonna be all this kind of stuff. People are going to sneeze and blink and sweat, and so there’s going to be (always) some form of grime that will accumulate in any building.

A building creates a controlled environment and part of that environment is that you don’t want grime everywhere (Generally. If you do want grime everywhere, then you want the grime to be of a specific quality. Like if you have a sewage treatment plant, you want to have a certain quality of grime, certain aspects to it).

So a building creates a controlled environment and it needs to be easy to clean.

And, I mean, that’s kind of the extent to where… and maybe accessible? I mean, you can say accessible, but some buildings are not accessible. For example, buildings that are designed to house very dangerous processes, but even when you have dangerous processes you still want to be able to clean the structure inside and out. Inside for the processes that go on inside, and outside for the environment that will no doubt assail it because that’s why you have a building in the first place, because the environment is not hospitable for the kinds of operations you are trying to perform.

So, “functional” includes “cleanable.”

So going back to this guy (this “architecture” guy (and I don’t remember his name, and if I did I probably wouldn’t say it because I don’t have very many kind things to say about his work, but)) he has this idea that you can use 3D printing and computational techniques to create architecture that has incredible structural complexity. And the things that he’s made are… somewhat interesting to look at. He’s trying to infuse information into his objects, or something. I think maybe it’s all just fluff and gander. But he’s created a number of objects which (to his credit) do have incredible structural complexity. Their surface is just covered in these nooks and crannies and completely convoluted shapes. And I’m sure they are very fascinating. It looks like a coral reef kind of thing, where you’ve got this super-fine structure. And there are whole pillars and he’s made a grotto of this stuff… it’s all very interesting.

But… um… but it fails.

It fails one of the tests of a building! In that, this stuff would be impossible to clean! There’s no way you’re going to get… what, you’re going to use a tooth-brush or something? And get all the tiny little crevaces? Because inevitably there’s going to be someone who’s going to sneeze on this (in an actual building. And of course he’s got these installed in an art installation somewhere where they’re behind glass or you can go in and touch them very gently with your hands, but). They’re never going to last ten years with people touching them. They’re going to get filled with skin cells and spalled off snot. It’s just going to be everywhere! And it’s going to be impossible to clean. You’d have to have someone full time just cleaning your architecture, if your building was made out of this stuff.

It was just atrociously poor thinking on his part to be like “Oooh! This is the future of architecture!” Now you could (to his credit) make this kind of architecture and then overlay it with a shelaque of some kind, or have some kind of a casting made around it that fills in the crevaces and makes a kind of smooth surface so that you’d get both the interesting appearance and the functionality of a smooth surface. And maybe that’s what he had in mind. That’s not what he did, but maybe that’s the eventual application.

But just [sighs] atrociously horrible. I mean, monumentally stupid to say “This is what we’re going to be building our houses (or our structures) out of.” It’s like, “No, you can’t. No! You won’t be! … because you can’t clean it.”

Now, if you’re trying to build it as a base object for some biological process. Like a coral reef substitute? If you’re trying to build some sort of corral reef object that has a very high surface area to volume ratio… I mean, maybe you could do something like that? They do kind of look like corral reefs, or structures of crystals that are grown in lattices at odd angles that have these very complex shapes and intersecting planes and things… but not as structure.

I mean, the Greeks got just about as far as they could with fluted columns. Even the flutes, I imagine, would be difficult to clean. But a flute, if it’s of uniform shape, you can just take a rag and run it down the thing and “schwoop” there you go you’ve cleaned the flute and the column, so without a great deal of trouble you can clean those things, but oh my goodness! The incredible complexity! It was like “oh… this is impossible.” And you see the same thing in other kind of experimental architecture, or experimental design guys, they’re like “Oh! What if we…”

One I saw was seashells. There’s this beautiful bathroom that someone made and it’s just inlaid with seashells, all over the walls! Beautiful! But… the first thing I thought was “Man, if you fell against one of that it would just destroy your skin.” Because of course the seashells are not just lying flat, they’re also with their edge up! Because you can see the very beautiful edging. But it’s just an incredible hazard! Those things are so sharp and so jagged. It’s like a room full of serrated knives! And then the other thing is it’s impossible to clean! If you look at this picture it’s like “Man alive! Who’s going to clean all that?” You’d get mildew in the cracks and you’d get mold and grime building up and just… It’s hard enough to clean a bathtub that’s flat! Let alone one of these convoluted crazy seashell encrusted bathrooms.

So the bathroom is just the worst place. If you’re going to do some sort of experimental crazy… you know, put it in the sitting room. Or on the ceiling! You know, where no one is going to be touching it, or accidentally throwing up on it. You know, things like this. Somewhere away from people. As far as possible. And the ceiling is probably the best place for that. But goodness! Don’t put it in the bathroom! Of all places!

Oh no.

So, there we go. There’s a short rant on architecture.

Well, no, I guess I’m not done.

So, another thing you see in these kind of experimental architecture guys is… ok, so in a building you’ve got (generally) a ceiling, walls, and a floor. Because, again, you’re trying to keep out the environment. The sun’s generally above you, the fluid that’s falling from the sky (the water and things) is generally above you so you’re going to want some sort of object situated over the top of this environment you’re creating, to keep off the sun and rain. And then to keep this object up, you’re going to need walls (because floating technology hasn’t worked very well so far in the past (I guess you could have a blimp that’s tethered by some tethers of some kind… and that would actually be a very interesting design… but no one has really done that) functionally). Functionally you’ve got compressive members that are holding up your roof. So you’ve got roof and then you’ve got walls. And then (since you’re building (you’re going through all this trouble to create a controlled environment) you put down a floor so that you’re not walking on dirt or shattered rock or grass or whatever it is that the environment normally affords as a walking surface. So) you put down a floor.

Of the locations in a building (in a structure) the most functional is the ceiling (EDITORS NOTE: I conflate “roof” and “ceiling” in this section… I hope you can forgive me this lexical laziness) and the floor because the ceiling keeps off the wind and rain and sun, and the floor keeps off the people. And if you have a structure, a designed environment, mostly it’s going to be used for people and so the floor is incredibly functional. And it’s also exposed to a lot of wear. The roof is exposed to a lot of wear as well. Falling water isn’t easy on materials, but the floor also. And the ceiling… er, and the roof (EDITORS NOTE: Ahh good, caught myself) generally doesn’t have… you don’t clean the roof very often. And you get moss growing up there and stuff, but the materials that you build a roof out of are generally very resilliant because they are exposed to falling water all the time, so they don’t mind a little bit of moss or lichen or things like that. The floor, however, is not exposed to water because you’ve got a roof (that’s the whole point of your structure). So it’s not exposed to water, but it is exposed to people’s feet all day long, and hands, and if you’re in a building (EDITORS NOTE: I think I meant to say “home” here?) children rolling around on it.

So your floor is incredibly important. The walls… they need to be structurally sound, but you can hang pictures on walls, and you can paint the walls different colors, and you can make them out of pretty flimsy materials, and it will be okay. Generally the walls aren’t exposed to a huge amount of stress, especially interior walls. And the same goes for the interior ceiling. The interior ceiling (if you have one) is almost purely visually functional. It’s not there to keep off the rain (the roof does that, the ceiling is the part that’s inside the building). It’s just drywall. You can put whatever you want on the ceiling and it’s fine. (As evidenced by all those buildings that have those “popcorn” ceilings with the stucco, the really high texture stucco on it.) or, all kinds of stuff. You can do all kinds of crazy things on the ceiling, and that’s fine.

So, crazy things on the ceiling.

Walls? Yeah you can go a little bit wacky with the walls. You have to be careful, people will bump into the walls when they’re walking around and carrying things (as they will do in a building that’s designed for a purpose (and if you don’t have a purpose for your building, why did you build it?)) But the floor has to be really good. You have to have a really well designed floor.

And so architecture guys go crazy with, “Ooh! We can have steps and inset areas and we can make slopes and weird shapes…” and it’s like, well, you’re not really thinking though. If someone is going to pay to have this building built, you need to make it server it’s purpose. And one of the purposes (one of the environmental considerations that you have to make) on a building is the environment that you can’t keep out. And here’s what I mean.

In a building you can’t keep out the air. And you could, hypothetically. And there are some buildings that are built like this, large auto-claves and things. Structures that are enclosed and you can keep air out. But almost all buildings allow air to enter and exit. So you’re going to need to put up with a certain amount of humidity. You’re going to need to put up with a certain amount of oxidation potential. There’s a lot of stuff that’s involved with just letting air into your building.

Another thing that you can’t keep out (and which people kind of tend to forget when they’re doing this kind of crazy architecture hypothetical design and you know this like modern art kind of stuff) is you can’t keep out gravity. (and we have found out no way at all to do this (if we had then we would be already in space and building stuff in space and then you can be operating in microgravity where you’re only subjected to a very small amount of tidal forces) but you can’t keep gravity out of a normal building) Which means that you have to contend with gravity. The people inside the building and the structures and materials inside the building are going to have to endure gravity.

And one of the results of gravity is that people make level surfaces. Flat level surfaces. Because a flat level surface has uniform potential under gravity. (and of course it’s not perfectly flat, it’s going to be slightly curved with the curvature of the earth (depending on where you build it) but for the scale that people build most buildings, it’s flat. And if you don’t care about flat, you can say “level.” (Level means that if you pour water on it the water will not tend to pool in any one area. It will tend to spread out in a uniform… level)) People build level floors because they take the least amount of energy to traverse. You don’t have to spend energy going in any one direction, all you have to overcome is friction. And because when you put an object on a level surface, the object doesn’t tend to roll or slide away. And when people are working in a building they want to know where things are. It’s a controlled environment, you’re trying to control the wind and the rain and the objects that you have in this environment. And so when people put something down they don’t want it sliding off, they don’t want to have to think about, “Oh, is this object going to behave in a strange manner?” So they build level surfaces.

Level surfaces are there because of gravity, and you can’t keep gravity out of a building (at least as far as I know (If you do know how to keep gravity out of a building, please let me know! I would love to talk to you!))

And these architecture guys! They just go crazy with the steps and the insets and the ramps. And it’s like, “Oh come on!” It’s a waste of space, because then you just have to build… Because if you have, an inset area, let’s say, a floor inset. (And this was popular, I think in the ’70s I think, where you had these kind of conversation pits where there was lowered down a bit.) If you one of those then you are going to inconvenience everyone! Because everyone is going to have to think about the edge of that, where it steps, and they are not going to be able to place objects over the edge of the area because they might totter one way or the other, they might tip over. You just introduce a great number of problems by introducing changes in level in the floor.

So for heaven’s sakes, when you’re building architecture, think about these things! Yes you can make it pretty! Yes you can make beautiful inlaid designs for flooring and walls, and especially the ceiling. The ceiling can be very convoluted and it doesn’t really matter. But please, please, think about what you’re doing, make level floors.

It’s because you can’t keep out gravity!

It’s not because you’re being un-original.

So, there you go. The main structure of architecture was invented thousands of years ago, if not hundreds of thousands. And it’s maintained the same general form for those thousands of years, not because people are unoriginal, not because they can’t think of anything different, but because it’s an optimized design for the environment that we’re living in, which is an environment at the bottom of a sea of ocean (EDITORS NOTE: I almost certainly meant to say “sea of air” there, but my mixed metaphor got the better of me) that has a large amount of water in it that condenses out of the atmosphere and falls down, which has sunlight which is sometimes hazardous or dangerous or undesirable, and gravity. And those things are the things you have to contend with when you’re building a structure.

So if you’re going to have new architecture that’s fine! And I do think there’s a lot of room to improve on architecture in general. But don’t forget about those things! They will come back to just destroy your designs in the future. You might be able to make something that’s nice! And the other thing you’re going to have to deal with is grime and dirt and undesired detritus because you’re designing for human beings who are organic objects, they spall off parts of themselves, and even if they don’t they work with things that are generally being altered or changed in form. People chew food, and the food gets out and gets on the floor and the walls, or on the ceiling (heaven forbid) and you’ve got all these kinds of considerations. So, the environment, and then just grime and dirt and dust and mess. Don’t forget about those things. Make your objects easy to clean. Make them have level surfaces on the floors. As far as possible give them interesting qualities! Certainly!

But make them functional. There’s no way that anyone is really going to adopt your designs unless they conform to these kinds of principles. And again, it’s not because no one likes you. It’s not because you’re being original. The problem is that this is a highly optimized solution for a problem that has existed for a long time and will continue to exist as far as we can tell in the future (There’s no even theoretical way that we can figure out to keep gravity out of buildings, and you wouldn’t want to keep air out because then people couldn’t breathe).

So, there you go, a rant directed at architecture people!

[sharp thud]

Ooh! And I just hit a crow. Well, there you go… that’s the end of the crow.

Ahh! See? There you go! Wild animals! There’s another thing that you have to keep out of your building! A crow just flew right in front of my car and of course I had no time to react to it and so it is now deceased. But a building stays in one place and animals can get into it. So you do have to consider animals getting into it. There are some designs with very open atriums and things like that and it’s like, “Well… that’s fine.” But it’s not a very controlled environment if wild animals can enter and exit freely. There’s going to have to be some consideration for that. And wasps building nests in things. And squirrels getting into stuff. So, animals too, but I think the environmental considerations are more important. Animals are part of the environment, but, uh, not always. Not always the biggest concern, I would say.

This has been the Paul Spooner Podcast, and, uh… I might play you out if I get around to it. I still haven’t edited it… I’m so far behind in editing these things! Oh well, that’s alright. I’m sure that you don’t miss it.

[more than mildly disturbing outro… thing]

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