Category Archives: Ramin Shambayati

SimDesign 4000

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SimCity 2000

(Emergence, Steven Johnson, 2002)

What is emergence? …And what do human cells, ants, computers, and city sidewalks all have in common? For Steven Johnson, the answer is simple, “local information leads to global wisdom.” Johnson describes the growth of the aforementioned subjects as being emergent systems: complex organisms that, regardless of their scale, harness the self-organizing qualities of local interactions for the overall amelioration of the mega-organism. While he discusses and compares the power of coordinated behaviour in ant colonies, the growth of single-celled organisms, computer based simulation games like SimCity, and the interactions of people in the sidewalks in major cities, it is the latter two analyses that stand out for me the most.

Johnson’s main argument is that successful cities self-organize themselves based on local interaction, allowing the metropolis to gradually change and evolve over the long term based on this information. He promotes the impact that sidewalks have on the overall impact of the city as they are the “primary conduit for the flow of information between city residents”. The repeated mix of strangers and random local configurations allows residents of a neighbourhood to collectively “solve” the problem of making themselves safe. While there may be a global structure such as a city masterplan, it is a combination of this overlying DNA map with the inhabitants’ local sense of place that establishes certain cities as self-organizing systems. The constant feedback between local agents permits higher-level learning to emerge through bottom-up forces. It is no surprise that more than half the world’s populations lives in cities today. The city, with emergent intelligence and its ability to store and retrieve information is able to replicate itself. It is a super-organism that can replicate itself over time, even though its inhabitants have no way of comprehending how their short term decisions will contribute to the macrodevelopment projecting over thousands of years. While we contribute to the emergent intelligence on a daily basis, it is almost impossible to perceive what our contribution will be in say the year 4000. This associativity between part and whole is best exemplified in the reference to SimCity. Using computer-based simulations, SimCity is able to model the behaviour of cities by using swarm logic. Although the player makes key decisions, it is the bottom-up powers of algorithmic simulations on the city block scale that allow the virtual cities to grow by themselves. As each block obeys a rigid set of instructions, the game’s meshwork of cells alters their behaviour based in response to the behaviour of other cells in that network. This is why users see recessions, booms, slums, rich neighbourhoods, crime, utopia, and a plethora of simulations.

Personally, I believe that as designers, we must learn from this beauty of designing through algorithmic data, like in SimCity, but at all scales of our work. We must allow parts, or even the entirety of a project or concept to grown naturally, fostering a multiplicity of possible solutions. Just as we must let our cities grow through the on-going simulations in sidewalks; the rest of our design work should also grow from small-scale interactions that make up the whole final (yet evolving) design. Emergent interactions already exist on the streets, in game simulations, and on the web, but we must extend this to all designs, machines, buildings, etc. Manuel DeLanda sums this up very well in a lecture on Deleuze and the use of the genetic algorithm in architecture. He advocates for the writing of scripts to allow people to exert their own power over software while also endorsing materials that have their own morphogenetic potential to be altered by genes. Through Deleuze’s 3 types of thinking (population, intensive, and topological), the artist has the ability to invent spaces of possibilities while the genetic algorithm searches them for us. These spaces of possibilities through simulations come in all different shapes and sizes and are essentially emergent systems. If emergence has proven to be successful at all scales: cells, ants, and cities, why not extend it to all systems? We may not know what our cities will look like in the year 4000, but we must embrace and promote the evolution of complex organisms and systems through simulation at all scales of our design. Our ancestors will understand. SimDesign 4000.



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The reading, Toyo Ito’s Learning from a Tree, was an intriguing mini-manifesto from the Japanese architect. While his concepts in the opening text felt a bit vague and idealist, the clear references to his ideas in the following case studies embodied his ideologies for architecture of the 21st century. Connections can also be drawn to concepts of architectural systems by relations, as discussed in class.

In his text, Ito, like many other forward-thinking architects, uses modernism as the scapegoat for many problems in contemporary society. He argues that we must move more and more away from the functionalist, pure, lucid geometries and homogenous spaces that dominate our lives and, by learning from the tree, restore a vivid and rich humanity. The tree is a very strong metaphorical relation that he constantly refers to. He says that architects today must not just build sustainably, but humans must sense the nature that they are a part of through the buildings they live in. The integration of nature and architecture that is prominent in Asian cities should be taken to the form of a highrise. “Architecture like a tree that spreads its branches widely.” He refers to a tree extending vertically and horizontally to its physical effect to photosynthesize, and says that architecture must adopt a similar fractal shape. Architecture should still be based on simple rules and geometry, but should be composed with a complex order, much like that of a tree. With this fractal geometry, inside/outside boundaries are blurred, resulting in creating ambiguous, adaptable spaces in architecture. In addition to obvious environmental relations, such as the need to constantly be open to the environment, it was the difference between atmospheric and disturbed relations that struck me as a key paradox. Toyo Ito is a strong believer that architecture must “not be unequivocally decided, but begin with a loose image that is gradually clarified by repeating various simulations.” He again returns to the tree, mentioning that through studies with biologists he discovered that a certain tree’s growth is not just based on its DNA, but also with interrelations with its surrounding environment. This repeated feedback between the tree and the environment, which defines its evolving shape/role is a strong atmospheric relationship. Having said this though, it is also important to note that each tree in nature, as he says, egotistically insists on its presence so as to maintain dominance over others (a disturbed relation). He compares this inner fight to nations, corporations, and people in capitalism. The main difference is that while the tree has this ego to put itself above others, unlike capitalism, it succeeds through interrelations with its immediate environment and the ability for change within its thick roots. The balance of atmospheric (interrelating) and disturbed (destructive) relations can therefore be drawn to architecture. How does our architecture of the 21st century accommodate for the two in tandem? If we must remove ourselves from the modernist machine, how will our new capitalist trees survive? These are questions Toyo Ito has for the next generation of architects, but he has already started to answer them, no better than in the example of his Sendai Mediatheque, a project which he claims changed his views on architecture.

The Sendai Mediatheque is a very apt case for Ito’s manifestos as he confesses that even years after the completion of the building, he feels that the building is “eternally under construction”, like the metaphor of the tree, that can adapt and interrelate with its environment, or in the case of the Mediatheque, its users. The lack of a fixed program gives the building a never-ending sense of evolution, adaptation, and mystery. As he puts it well himself, “architecture without an archetype is for me ideal architecture.” These themes of eternal construction and incompleteness have inspired me in my personal work and research this term at IaaC. Working in the wind ‘social’ energy studio, we are focused on integrating our low-frequency piezo energy harvester device with Valldaura’s trees. Our aim is to use the energy produced on site to emit sounds to attract a host of birds, insects and small mammals to a specific tree. We hope to create a network of such trees, and through the attraction of native species back to the Valldaura, promote a system of controlled pollination in the area, which from our research, is seriously lacking. At the moment the design of our product is too homogenous, it is like a frozen moment of a myriad of possibilities to enhance wind flow through our device. Our goal therefore is to leave this archetype and instead focus our study on adaptable forms, concepts, and materials. Much like Ito’s Mediatheque that doesn’t have a fixed program, our device will not have a fixed shape or fixed tree it will be interrelating with. Our aim is to create a highly integrated and advanced product (with a certain ego) that succeeds due to its ability to play our various simulations due to its loose image and fractal shape. Embraced by Valldaura’s society and eternally under construction. Ito would be proud, I hope.

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