Serendigital

Contributors
Publication Date
September 17, 2020

“Kitbashing” is an appropriated term in the movie/videogame design industry, stolen from hobbyists that use “disparate elements” from standard model kits to “blend… within a continuous field of other free elements.”1 There is only a vague idea of how two completely unrelated objects will relate, and kitbashing provides a breeding ground for unique and unpredictable relationships to materialize - serendipity. There is an ideological overlap here with architectural thinking that is worth exploring.

The “continuous field” definition is a direct quote in Greg Lynn’s description of the smooth, curvilinear, pliant, and multiplicitous. These are conceptual descriptors for a formal language that refuses allegiance to either side of the complexity/unity dialectic that dominates the architectural canon. Lynn points to a variety of architectural projects and organic phenomenon2 to advocate for unpredictable (serendipitous, if you will) output.

Similarly advocating for the unpredictable, Jeff Kipnis aptly labels himself an “intellectual apologist for the extreme, the exotic, [and] the subversive.”3 True to form, Kipnis outlines the “powerful but suspect tradition” of measuring a design by the “degree to which it exemplifies a theory or philosophy, rather than the degree to which it continuously produces new architectural effects”4 . Advocating for an alternative method to the popular analytical rationalist modus operandi, Kipnis also uses a variety of contemporary projects5 to describe a process of “formal linking” as a tool to generate “unpredictable affiliation.”6 Kipnis advocates for an unpredictable design process in order to uncover repressed, minor organizations of a site. Serendipity becomes a tool for design discovery.

In order to momentarily avoid an ideological clash, common ground was established by way of the architectural communities affinity for the physical model. You would be hard pressed to find an architect who doesn’t believe in the generative power of the sketch model. Discrete materials are used as early representation for programmatic, tectonic, and formal elements where vague relationships start to come to the surface. The generative power of the physical model is made possible by the serendipity and the vague. An extension of this idea to the digital realm is not audacious, and that is where I make the case for the Serendigital.

Why Do We Choose Rhino

Regardless of how interested one is in the exploration of the Serendigital, the process of aligning digital tools with theoretical tools is still necessary for any designer. If the chosen digital method of exploration and development is a product of a system of beliefs, then what are we valuing by exploring with NURBS-based rhinosphere over programs like Blender, ZBrush, Maya, or Cinema4D (the Polysuite)? If we unpack the historical development of each software package, the answer to this question becomes fairly obvious.

Rhino’s lineage can be traced back to a collaboration between Boeing and the SDRC7 at the end of the 1970s, when 3D representation of complex wing geometries was not commercially available. Engineers and mathematicians with no CAD experience whatsoever developed a taxonomy of Non-Uniform Rational Based Splines (NURBS) that would define precise surface geometry in order to share data throughout fabrication. The lead engineer of the project commercialized the software, starting the company Applied Geometry and offering services for clients like Honda, Alias Research, and Tecnomatix through the 1980’s. Eventually, collaboration with Robert McNeel for AutoCAD in the following decade led to the final release of Rhino 1.0 in 1998.

During the same time period a similar supply gap was being addressed by Wavefront Technologies, a company developing CGI products across multiple industries. In 1995 wavefront was purchased by SGI alongside rival company Alias Research (small world) in a merger that was competing against Microsoft’s Softimage in a race to corner the Computer Graphics market. The merger between the two companies led to subsequent development and release of Maya in 1998, where its initial use on Disney’s “Dinosaur” in 2000 led to an Academy Award and widespread acclaim. AutoDesk eventually purchased Alias in 2005, and has continued development on Maya since.

Considering the real-world precision that built form requires, the choice of software selection (and the subsequent underscore of design values) seems obvious here: to choose the package that addresses transferral of complex digital ideas to the real world and to not choose the software built as a vehicle for creativity across a purely digital medium. Yet both of these “destinations for creativity” are important in architectural design. Have we not already established the power of the vague? The point where vagueness is usurped for precision is worth closer consideration.

How Do We Create The Serendigital

The case can be made that the NURBS-modelling8 environment in rhino needs this transition to begin immediately. Serendipity is on life support as points start defining curves and surfaces. Though the fabrication-centric NURBS geometry requires less input in order to create complex/precise surface geometry, it requires unit-based input. Upon opening Rhino, what seems like a grey Tabula Rasa belies the precision of its modelling environment. Generation of curves, surfaces and volumes are influenced by continuous calculation with real world implications.

The contrasting Polymodeling paradigm allows for less prescription from the start and offers a digital extension of the vague and serendipitous concept sketch. In the unitless polysuite, proportion and interface between discrete elements takes precedence over real-world metrics. Geometry is composed strictly of straight lines and planar surfaces, in which smoothness is a product of subdivision. Furthermore, the ability to easily manipulate the common branching and fusing geometries found in the CG industry plays a large part in the Polysuite success in the CG industry. The polysuite extends exploration into the digital realm, and the growing interoperability with Rhino makes these tools increasingly important in discovering new architectural ideas.

Serendipity/ Vagueness

As the century progresses, credence is growing for proto-functional architecture as a generative source of new ideas.9 Instead, students should be using digital tools that cultivate this new-found “correspondence between concept and form.”10 The importance of NURBS-based Rhino bridging between concept and fabricated form cannot be understated, however we should be considering the ramifications it has on design. Why is there no medium between physical sketches/models and the Rhinosphere? The vague and the precise both share a seat at the table of architectural design, and the right digital palette can engender a non-linear relationship between from the former and the latter. Why leave serendipity to the physical model?

  1. Lynn, Greg. 1998. Folds, Bodies & Blobs: Collected Essays. Bruxelles: La Lettre volée, 110
  2. Lynn repeatedly discusses ‘organic’ matter and ‘bodies’ with a subversive tendency to avoid anthropocentrism; swarms, parasites, fish-eye morphology, and flatworms to name a few.
  3. Kipnis, Jeffrey. 2013. A Question of Qualities: Essays in Architecture. Cambridge, Massachusetts : The MIT Press, 99
  4. Kipnis, A Question of Qualities: Essays in Architecture, 302
  5. In A Question of Qualities Kipnis specifically describes Shirdel’s Library of Alexander competition, Eisenman’s Columbus Convention Center, and Gehry’s Vitra museum to symbolize a ‘Deformatist’ emphasis on ‘affiliation’ and the dissonance between intention and result. For more information see Chapter 11: Towards a New Architecture.
  6. Kipnis, A Question of Qualities: Essays in Architecture, 308
  7. Structural Dynamics Research Corporation, industry leading CAD system development
  8. Non uniform rational b splines
  9. Kipnis, Lynn, and Biln all reflect on specific contemporary architects that use the diagram in a proto-functional generative way. See Kipnis’ notes in his Towards a New Architecture essay about reprogramming, or in a discussion on Ben Van Berkel’s work found in both Greg Lynn’s Forms of Expression Essay and John Biln’s Lines of Encounter.
  10. Lynn, Folds, Bodies & Blobs: Collected Essays, 224
Publication Date
September 17, 2020
Volume
6
Number
01
Graphic Designers