5 minutes reading time (1035 words)

Ján Pernecký: the digital paradigm

Ján Pernecký: the digital paradigm
Ján Pernecký is founder of Rese Arch, an organisation which supports and teaches conceptual and generative approaches to architecture, and is also founding partner of Bratislava agency Subdigital. Ahead of his talk at Sensorium in June, we asked Ján ​about architecture, the "digital", and generative design.

Tell us about what you will be talking about at Sensorium.

JP: When I'm promoting the digital paradigm in architecture, no matter if in front of professional or general audience, people tend to worry about the loss of the human touch and seem to be afraid to lose their jobs to computers. I believe this is a major misconception. The generative approach is radically different from the conventional design process in the moment that the design happens.

Conventionally, the author comes up with an idea or intention and designs its implementation. Within the generative realm, we can create tools that find the implementation of the intentions, which we design. This gives us an opportunity and time to come up with non-trivial ideas and emergent implementations. It is not the loss of authorship; it's rather a delegation of routine intellectual tasks to computers.

At Sensorium I'm going to argue for this shift of authorship in favour of less banal concepts in architecture.

What do you think of the term "creative programming" as a way to describe what those in the visual arts do with computers? Surely all programming is, in one way or another, creative?

JP: I'm aware of this discrepancy but in fact it doesn't disturb me. I read it as an abbreviation of "Programming as a medium of creative arts". In fact, the terminology seems to be an issue in all digital disciplines. The digital approach in architecture is often called "parametric", "digital", "generative", "emergent", even "animated" or, as a style, "parametricism". We seemed to settle with "computational design" even though it's the least appealing of them all. 

None of these terms is comprehensive but at the end, architecture as such is inherently vaguely defined and thus needs to be redefined with each new design. This makes it truly unique and challenging.

One of your main activities is the teaching of Grasshopper, a software tool which offers (amongst other features) the ability to produce generative algorithms. Given that "algorithms" in their loosest definition of the term are now prevalent throughout everyday society and life in general, do you feel that generative art is perhaps ahead of its time in its adoption of algorithms?

JP: For a long time, I believed that the digital approach in architecture is way behind the generative visual arts. I don't think so any more, as there is a major difference – the architecture creates a form or a formal system, whereas the "new media art" can become its own subject. Digital art pieces seem to be most convincing when dealing with big data, social media, and so on. This is not possible with architecture and the two can be at most inspired by each other or share tools.

Architecture is dependent on many separate disciplines – creative, technological, engineering, fabrication, legislation – which would need to be in sync to change the major building industry. In this sense, computational design is ahead of its time. It's incredibly difficult to bring a design into reality as the architect needs to create the design and fabrication tools and understand the materials, which leaves us with designing just small-scale buildings such as pavilions. 

On the other hand, looking back at the major movements of the 20th century and before, none of them took so long to become prevalent. The first writings on the topic of computational design appeared in the 60's and the discipline as we know it today exists for at least 30 years. I have no doubt that soon it will become the norm as there are rational reasons for it, but it takes surprisingly long and appears to be more difficult than expected. We spend time learning the tools, knowing the materials and even writing a theory but we struggle to find a truly architectural theme in it. 

Architecture has been incredibly rich in writings and conceptual thinking but currently we have just a faint idea which could be the natural architectural themes arisen from the digital experience. We still seem to be stuck with swarm-behaviour simulations rather than something truly original.

Given that architecture is also one of your main areas of focus, how should architectural practices embody algorithms and generative software? Does it do so currently? Is it doing so in the right way?

JP: The architectural practice does utse algorithms, yet in a very basic way. There are several, hierarchical levels of computation in architecture. The automation of routine tasks, optimisation and parametric modelling are the most common ones, despite they merely simplify the design process of otherwise conventional architecture. Maybe that's why they became the most common in the industrial practice.

The true game changers are generative and emergent methods because instead of designing a building, the architect designs a tool, which designs the building. Its form is at the beginning unknown. That is the greatest difference from the conventional design, where the architect has an idea of the result and strives to find ways of its materialisation. I also believe there could potentially be something I call a "design by behaviour" – a process of embodiment of architectural concepts into agents of a complex system simulation. The result will be emergent, yet truly conceptual in the architectural sense.

Is the teaching of architecture moving quickly enough? Are graduates coming out of schools of architecture with a good understanding of what's digitally possible, as well as with a sound understanding of theory and principle?

JP: I doubt so, even if we speak about the world's best schools. There is still insufficient architectural theory in the field, a complete lack of professional critics and oversimplification of teaching through tutorials - and not enough mathematics – which might be a problem also outside of architecture.

On the other hand, it's admirable how much effort the universities invest into all sorts of interdisciplinary research. Even though the development of the discipline is surprisingly slowly, it is very thorough.

Let's finish with a hypothesis. You are given a half-kilometre square area of ground, in the centre of Bratislava (let's say it's where the old bus station is). What would you do with it?

JP: I'd wish to build a manifesto of "design by behaviour", but I'd probably spend my lifetime figuring out what it actually might be.

Further information on Ján and his work is available at Rese Arch.
Ján will be speaking at Sensorium, taking place 07 - 09/06/18 in Bratislava. For further information and to book, visit the Sensorium website.
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