Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Conversation About BIM

Earlier this month the Technology Committee of the New York AIA held the event “Changing Practices - A Panel Discussion on Technology, Practice and Professional Identity”. The discussion focused on Building Information Modeling (BIM). The four professionals from the design and construction communities gave case studies illustrating how their firms used the modeling system to created deliverables that realized savings in time, material, and money. Theatrically, the evening probably was supposed to culminate with the Chairman of the Technology Committee's question "Is the traditional method of practicing architecture dead?" It uncomfortably didn’t. For reasons each participant brushed against with their responses, the answer was an unmistakable "no."

This post focuses on one of the reasons, a current failing for most BIM, and a wonderful capacity of human intelligence that will not be replaced soon: the ability to operate at multiple scales.

Briefly, BIM is a method of describing an architectural design with a large database. Vaguely, buildings are a collection of slabs, walls, and roofs, and each of these elements themselves may have components attached to them, like windows, doors, and openings. In BIM, each component is modeled spatially, (i.e. a door is 1’-0” south on this wall from the intersection with this wall.) but this relational information is in some ways secondary to the way the building’s information is stored: a BIM is just a complicated database of individually customized components and the “models” we see are odd windows into that database.

It may seem like a non- sequitur, but it is helpful to talk first about how others value models before diving into a critique of BIM. In A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking defends some of his most important work he did (in the 70’s), making cosmological theories by studying the idealized behavior of sub-atomic particles…
“I would like to emphasize that this idea that time and space should be finite without boundary is just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principal. Like any other scientific theory, it may be initially be put forward for aesthetic or metaphysical reasons, but the real test is weather it makes predictions that agree with observation. This, however, is difficult to determine in the case of quantum gravity, for two reasons. First, as will be explained in the next chapter, we are not yet sure exactly which theory successfully combines general relativity and quantum mechanics, though we know quite a bit about the form such a theory must have. Second, any model that described the whole universe in detail would be much too complicated mathematically for us to calculate exact predictions. One therefore has to make simplifying assumptions and approximations – and even then, the problem of extracting predictions remains a formidable one.”

… Here Hawking, one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein, explains the most common problems with modeling in every profession. A model is only valuable because it makes predictions about the relationships one tries to capture. However, the accuracy of those predictions is usually restricted to the amount of detailed information one can encapsulate. Thus, like most other professions, a model is only as valuable as the amount of pertinent information it holds, and how detailed a calculation one is able to perform with that data.

To ground this back with architecture’s struggle with BIM, it appears that our bottleneck, like Hawking’s before us, is at the scale change. While Hawking considered the enormously large and the exceedingly small, many introductory design studios force the analysis of a building operating at three primary scales: the Civic, the Human, and the Material Scales. The Civic Scale (roughly 1/64” = 1’-0”) describes how a building relates to the city. By describing the building as a specialized unit in a much larger whole, the Civic scale makes the viewer consider the building as an element in a larger organism, environmental, social, and in the confluence of flows. At the smaller Human Scale (roughly 1/4” = 1’-0”) the building is seen as an environment for its inhabitants. By describing the way the composition shelters, divides, and controls its inhabitants, the Human Scale forces the viewer to consider how the building mediates flows, social situations, and ecological situations. Finally the smallest Material Scale (roughly 3”=1’-0”) describes how individual components of a building are pieced together to assemble the composition. At this scale the physical properties of the materials used overwhelms other consideration, and reflection is spent on gravity, mass, strength, bonding, overlap, and thickness. Any architectural modeling system billed as “all inclusive” should be judged not only on how well it operates at one of these scales, but at all of these scales, and how well it allows the designer to change between them.

With this knowledge it is time to finally return to the measured responses at this month’s New York AIA Technology Committee event. Each presenter made clear that their model was a deliverable – but that the scope and purpose of that model was made explicit well before the BIM was made. In this way, the model was a design project that echoed the larger job of delivering a high-quality, customized project. Importantly though, the BIM was not responsible for encapsulating all the design decisions, as it is frequently billed. Instead these databases were the site of calculation of only a few design variables, not all the considerations for the project, in the same way that different scale plans are the site of calculation for far different issues.

Thankfully, the design community doesn’t know the scope of all that it will need to design in the future, and these wise panelists avoided making statements that one tool or even one approach to design will be adequate. "Is the traditional method of practicing architecture dead?" was recast by the end of the evening to include all the systems of collage, bricolage, and extra-resourceful guerilla-design that will necessarily keep things new and changing for generations to come.

People Talking about Architecture - 06.29.2006

Multiple Speakers - Building Futures Summer Debate: The Future of Beauty
6:30 PM - Building Design Partnership, (16 Brewhouse Yard)
Sean Griffths (of FAT), Robert Adam (of Robert Adam Architects), Will Alsop (of SMC Alsop), Patrick Keiller (of RCA), and Sarah Wigglesworth (of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects) will talk about the many ways critics have justified and given meaning to the design of buildings and environments. Then they plan to question if this is the way it should be. From the description, "Shouldn’t making buildings and environments beautiful be a key task for the architects and the other design professionals and parties involved in creating the built environment? Isn’t “what buildings look like” a key communicational interface between a building and, not only its users, but also the public at large, for whom it creates a piece of the environment they inhabit, even if they never actually enter the building in question?"

People Talking about Architecture - 06.28.2006

Derek Gregory & Eyal Weizman - Violent Architectures: New Wars and Arab Cities
7:30 AM - Brandon Room, Institute of Contemporary Arts
The geographer and the architect will explore the emergent relationship between armed conflicts and the built environment. Examining the military’s own language, they will focus on the ways in which the military operates in Arab cities from the West Bank and Gaza to Afghanistan and Iraq. This presentation appears to have the same "Bernard Tschumi inspires Israeli generals' attack stratagies" thesis as Eyal Weizman's recent contribution to AnyCorp's Log 7 -- a quick 10 page read for those who cannot make it to the show.

San Francisco:
Miltiple Speakers - The Art of Placemaking: Transit-Oriented Development
5:30 - AIA East Bay (1405 Clay Street)
This panel discussion will focus on both the challenges and potential of making Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) successful, and how important the quality and level of design of the architecture of TOD is to the success of TOD. Speakers include John Ellis (of the AIA), James Corless (of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, Tom Radulovich (Executive Director of Livable City), and Mark Farrar (Principal of Millennium Partners)

People Talking about Architecture - 06.27.2006

Martha Thorne - The Pritzker Architecture Prize: Past and Present
2:30 PM - Fullerton Hall
The former associate curator in the Art Institute's Department of Architecture and now executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, will present a illustrated program tracing the history of the prize and examining the work of past laureates.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

People Talking about Architecture - 06.23.2006

Discussion - Big Debate: What Skyline Does London Want?

7:30 - Barbican Lecture Theatre (Silk Street)
The event promises to host Rem Koolhaas, Adam Caruso, and Lee Polisano in debate. Kahn would get a chuck out of the title and company.

People Talking about Architecture - 06.22.2006

New York:
Discussion - 3X3 A PERSPECTIVE ON CHINA - Part Three: CHIN[A]RT
6:30 pm - Location Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia Place)
Part of the monthly Lecture Series, CHIN[A]RT aims to study the "image of contemporary Chinese city as given shape and sense through the hands, eyes and minds of two Chinese installation artists," Song Dong, and Yin Xiuzhen.

New York:
Hugh Hardy - How People Relate to Public Spaces
6:00 PM - King Juan Carlos of Spain Center (53 Washington Square South)
The New York Architect and Principal of H3 will speak about projects across greater New York City.

People Talking about Architecture - 06.20.2006

Washington DC:
Philip Jacks - Bernini: Genius of the Baroque
6:30 PM - The Smithsonian Institute
The Associate Professor of Art History at George Washington University will explore works including the Baldacchino & Cathedral for St. Peter’s; the staging of Theresa of Avila in the Cornaro Chapel; the urban design & planning of the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale; the design of Piazza Navona & the Fountain of the Four Rivers; and designs for the east facade of the Louvre.

People Talking about Architecture - 06.19.2006

Washington DC:
Anthony Alofsin - Pinwheel on the Prairie: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower
6:30 PM - National Building Museum
Anthony Alofsin, the professor of art and art history at the University of Texas at Austin and guest-curator of the exhibition Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower will discuss why this 19-story, 57,000-square-foot high rise is the only skyscraper the FLW ever got to construct, despite designing several others.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

People (not) Talking About Architecture

The summer months are overturning our pages and driving architects everywhere out of doors. With school out, and the World Cup on, there are just fewer events on calendars everywhere. When a day is skipped in this forum, it will be because we don't have an event to post, so all are invited to comment events that get missed. Meanwhile the next few days look rather quiet.

Monday, June 12, 2006

People Talking about Architecture - 06.13.2006

New York:
Discussion - ‘Changing Practices...'
6:00 OPM - Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia Place)
The evening's full title, ‘Changing Practices - A Panel discussion on technology, practice and professional identity' sums it up pretty well. The topics discussed will revolce around how Building Information Modeling (BIM) is "improving the quality and efficacy of professional communications".

Washington DC:
Symposium - Prefabricated Houses–Good and Green Design
6:30 PM - National Building Museum
The discussions will focus on efforts aimed to improve the reputation of prefabricated, or modular, housing. A growing number of architectural firms now combine the economic and construction efficiencies of factory-built homes with the benefits of customized, green designs. The result is sophisticated architecture and interior design that can be offered at reasonable prices and that incorporates many environmentally-friendly features. Michelle Kaufmann, principal of Michelle Kaufmann Designs in California and creator of the GlidehouseTM featured in the Museum’s exhibition The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design; Joseph Tanney, AIA, co-founding principal of New York-based Resolution: 4 Architecture, which designed the 2003 winning entry for the Dwell Home Design Invitational; and Michael Sylvester, editor of, a virtual resource and newsletter for modernist prefab dwellings, will discuss this growing housing trend.

People Talking about Architecture - 06.12.2006

New York:
Panel Discussion - Small Spaces + Big Imagination = Life in the Modern City
6:30 pm - Japan Society (333 East 47th St.)
Using the premise that both the physical and historical forces that shape a city also shape the way its inhabitants live, the panelists will discuss Japanses urban developement. The panelists include Toshiharu Tsukamoto (Japanese architect at Atelier Bow-Wow, and Assistant Professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology); Limbon (Professor of Urban Planning at Ritsumeikan University); and moderator Clifford Pearson (Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Architectural Record)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Aggressive Use of “Urban Art”

After recently attending the public presentation of “Balloon Flower (Red)” at 7 World Trade Center, and listening to the developer’s vague description of the purpose of public art, it becomes clear that FAR-based zoning or building code had the effect of opened a gap in the psychological and build environments.

This code changed the primary size limitation for buildings from height and setback lengths to Floor Area Ratio (FAR) calculations. As a bonus to developers, buildings which volunteered to accept large setbacks in downtown areas (giving private real estate back to the city in the form of paved plazas) were rewarded the ability to build more square footage in a market that set rent based on leaseable area. This meant that developers could suddenly earn more money from the same amount of land. The kind of organization that could organize the large amounts of initial capitol and land to benefit from these bonuses, and kind of tenant that preferred the large, modern, stark skyscrapers that formed from the zoning was the corporation.

The hidden cost to these corporations was some loss of control; they had to turn over the use of their front yards, the new urban plaza, to the general public. The spirit of the law provided these spaces as public amenities, but private interests strove to narrowly define their use. For example, by city law, little restriction can be placed on meeting or gathering in these spaces, but there is modest incentive for it. Their noticeable lack of usable fixtures declares that these spaces are not intended for shelter, sitting, or reclining. Very little furniture is typically provided, and what little is offered is usually designed to discourage prolonged use. The welcome mat is taken in.

The accusation here is that these spaces are ironically, and intentionally, design for transience.

The tie-wearing crowd isn't keen on "the public" getting comfortable in privately owned public space. Skateboarders, rollerbladers, street musicians, street performers, pan-handlers, and the homeless are all members of that public sphere. Marginalized, they sometimes use public space in unpredictable and impromptu uses that stand in high contrast to the image of highly controlled, institutionally rooted, and hermetically sealed cleanliness. The purchasers of corporate modernism subscribed and exuded the kind of control to which democratically used public space was an anachronism. That separation played out in the space between the sidewalk and the front door of these skyscrapers.

In this context, it is easy to see "Urban Art" in an aggressive use, as a scuttling of public spaces. These trophies who are most expressive when set in large, flat, featureless spaces insistently consumed the space that was gifted to cities, aggravating most consumptions like sport, organized rallies, improvised markets, and the like.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

People Talking about Architecture - 06.08.2006

Witold Rybczynski - (Untitled Lecture)
6:00 PM - Harperley Hall (1 West 64th Street)
The author of the prize-winning biography, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, will discuss Olmsted as a journalist, civic leader, and town planner. Professor Rybczynski also reviews two Olmsted landscapes in greater detail: his second great public park, rospect Park in Brooklyn, and his last project, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

New York:
Various Speakers - New York Designs
6:30 PM - Urban Center (457 Madison Avenue)
The night will feature small projects that use the challenge of environmental sustainability as a catalyst for architectural invention. It will feature presentations by Samuel Anderson of Samuel Anderson Architects (to speak about the Thaw Conservation Center, and The Morgan Library & Museum); Davidson Norris of Carpenter Norris Consulting (to speak about the Sunlight in Teardrop Park); and Claire Weisz and Mark Yoes of weisz + yoes architecture (to speak about The Battery Bench & Kowsky Plaza).

People Talking about Architecture - 06.07.2006

New York:
Calvin Tsao - (Untitled Lecture)
6:30 PM - Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia)
The guest of the Architectural Dialogue Committee will discuss "his firm’s work as an inexact language shaped by culture and humanities."

Lyman Shepard - Frank Lloyd Wright--NOW--the Challenges of Modernism
12:15 PM - Buck Lecture Hall Gallery (224 S. Michigan Ave.)
As part of a Lunchtime Lectures series, the architectural historian will discuss Frank Lloyd Wright and the challenges of modernism.

People Talking about Architecture - 06.06.2006

Keith Williams - (Untitled Lecture)
6:30 PM - Jarvis Hall (66 Portland Place)
The architect of London’s Unicorn Theatre, and Athlone Civic Centre in Ireland will explore the ideas and motivations behind his firm’s work. He is expected to present current projects including the new Wexford Opera House, a library near Monaghan, Ireland, and a large private house in London.

People Talking about Architecture - 06.05.2006

New York:
John Mutter - Is Sustainable Development Feasible?
6:30 PM - Urban Center (457 Madison Avenue)
The deputy director of the Earth Institute and chair of the organizing committee for the March 2006 state of the planet conference will report on responses to the conference theme “Is Sustainable Development Feasible?”

Walter Hood - Topology/Typology: Different Urban Landscapes
5:30 PM - Seattle Central Library Auditorium (1000 Fourth Ave.)
The internationally acclaimed landscape architect who serves as professor in the Landscape Architecture Department at UC Berkeley and is principal of Hood Design in Oakland, CA will speak about how his work spanns a variety of settings, including architecture, urban design, community planning, environmental art, and research. His firm designed the gardens and landscape for the New De Young Museum, San Francisco with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. And his work was recently featured in the “Open” New Designs For Public Spaces, Van Allen Institute, NY.