City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.

Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM) are a huge architecture multinational. As with Arup, we knew it was important to represent this end of the spectrum at Postopolis!, and Seletsky gave a great talk, linking many themes. Entitled ‘Digital Design Ecosystem: Toward a Pre-Rational Architecture’, Seletsky gives a fantastic talk, intellectual in approach, and drawn from history, but grounded by showing the actual systems SOM deploy in their work. Bryan has posted his own reflections on this talk too.

Seletsky starts by noting that typically, as architects, we are searching for form. Based on metaphor, or based on program. And after the form has been developed, we validate to withstand the elements. But the questions he seems to be interested in asking now are whether we get validation from a digital process in generating form.


At this point, he makes a nice analogy with profession of medicine, shifting from shamanism and quackery. (Based on Paul Starr’s book ‘The Social Transformation of American Medicine.’) He takes us through some sobering slides of blood-letting device called ‘the scarificator’, indicating how physicians got barbers carry out the procedure, having specified it. Again, this motif of specifying instructions or guidelines and enabling others to implement. So we see a division of labour, illustrated in prints from Daumier. ‘Physicians vs. Barbers (and Surgeons)’ (He also pauses to note that the blood-letting is how we are left with the red and white stick outside barber shops.) Then we see a further refinement, via Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and an introduction for scientific practice of medicine. Seletsky is conjuring the Enlightenment at this point – memory, reason, imagination – and ends this preface with Ockham’s Razor, the clarity of finding the simplest solution, and this relationship with modernism as a yearning for simplicity – “bringing the nature of something to its very roots.”

Since 1980, SOM have been working in digital design. What was originally called the ‘Computer Capability’ programme developed into a smorgasbord of systems they now align under the banner of their Building Information Modeling process, or BIM. For SOM, it enables a re-engineering of geometry, of form-finding.

He draws a diagram indicating relationships between architects, contractors and other bodies, as part of a unified system. He follows by animation of a script running in real-time, to create curtain wall, the components of curtain wall, and how they might be fabricated. For SOM, this is not about performance, but about creation. (See also Scott Marble, earlier.) I find it amusing that the script is colliding Visual Basic and Excel, and not anything more complex, but also admire this use of ready-mades and the at-hand.


Seletsky then shifts gear to consider representation, showing a traditional means of rendering the Lotte Tower in Seoul (see also article on SOM’s parametric modeling practice on this building). The image of the building is clear, but after dropping a little Magritte, Seletsky then goes on to explode a series of representations of the building, across multiple axes, visual and conceptual. We see, in quick succession, numerous systems rendering particular aspects, such as Sketchup models, NavisWorks, script-based explorations of performance etc. These are mainly still about coordinates in space and geometry, and not really behaviour. But we then see shadow studies, or the play of sunlight across floor slabs. We see explorations of egress, and models of pedestrian movement through the space. Shiftings scale, we get into urban dynamics, and models of how it actually changes the space around the building (like Aranda/Lasch’s ‘Colour Shift’, almost). Again, it’s like Hockney photomontage in terms of the huge number of multiperspectival viewpoints of the system, and massively interesting.


On sustainability, they too are searching for ways to truly validate LEED requirements. How do we measure beyond LEED requirements? We currently don’t have a means to quantify, or truly validate, our deisgn intent.

It’s great to hear that SOM are also working with the great artist James Turrell, on an installation for Deerfield Academy. This is fascinating, and indicates some exploratory work in rapid prototyping and fabrication.



So, as architects, they too are clearly moving forward multidisciplinary mode – not trying to put consultants or engineers out of business, they say. A fascinating echo of Matt Clark from earlier. They want to communicate too, apparently. They want to have a dialogue without explaining everything over and over again.


Getting a little carried way perhaps, Paul makes the slightly hubristic statement that using parametric tools, “we can readily change geometry,” but it is fascinating to see this progression of informational systems within architecture, and Seletsky et al clearly deserve a lot of credit for getting these systems through large organisations. He sees these systems not as an answer in themselves, but a means to finding a variety of answers. They’re Interested in exploring the range of possible answers – and figuring out what are the effects of gestures and approaches. For him, this should be in systems that enable simultaneous feedback, in a millisecond, to map such analysis to the geometry in the initial program; to map the results of a design decision back onto the design process in real time. They’ve developed systems using processors that are used in medical and automotive research. Some people say to him ‘It’s engineering data, it’s not architecture’. I say ‘It’s all part of the same process’.”

Ends with a slide of a great quote from Mies van der Rohe, from 1950 speech at MIT, which I’ll reproduce below.


As he’d said that representation should “no longer just about a retinal stimulation”, I asked about Pallasmaa and exploring models and representations of the other different senses. He said they were exploring sound in particular, and it would be fascinating to hear more about this.


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