12 Nov '09 Supersurfaces

Image: Corian supersurface by Amanda Levete Architects

I've been reading Michael Hensel & Achim Menges' excellent documentation of their architectural research at the AA, Morpho-Ecologies. The ME approach can be broadly characterised by the design & fabrication of generative structures rooted in biological form, often based on cellular and plant growth models, as a means of improving the performance, intelligence and sustainability of architectural constructions. Erwin Hauer's wall for Knoll's showroom, a cellular Hydrostone surface that modulates light in sophisticated ways, is one example. See also the work of Alisa Andrasek's studio, Biothing (book), TheVeryMany, this gallery of compiled works or Bruce Sterling's documentation of generative architecture prototypes from AAST in Tokyo — some, if not all, of these examples display an ME approach.

The term morphology was coined by Goethe and ecology by Haeckel, worthy intellectual forefathers to any movement. If electron microscopy provides us with the contemporary equivalent to Haeckel's extraordinary work (see France Bourely, whose book is excellent), then the digital models produced by ME research at least induce some of the same responses; aesthetically complex, exploratory, biological, foreign designs that reveal new conceptions of form. They signal a future architecture rooted in biochemistry; Hengel & Menges are essentially trying to retool architects to think in terms of organism and environment. Speculations on membranes, synthetic life structures & evolutionary design are all to be found in ME practice.

ME surfaces can at times resemble diatoms, with gradual variation over many cells produced by adaptation to local environmental variables. I would broadly define these ME surfaces as supersurfaces, as a way of expressing the synthetic nature of their growth models; they are in a way looking to supersede the natural, not merely emulate/simulate. One such supersurface was exhibited as part of the London Design Festival by Amanda Levete Architects.

Superstudio brought the word supersurface into architectural discourse in the 70s as a vision of a homogenised, unified landscape, both an ironic counter to the spatial logic of tele-communication grids (Castell's space of flows) and a radical re-appraisal of boundary in the built landscape [1],[2]. In this new guise the supersurface is an emergent, contiguous form produced by simulated forces acting on interrelating components modelled using parametric design techniques, made real via the complex fabrication of many similar but often subtly varying components that interconnect in the final surface. The morpho-genetic growth is simulated in software, the fabricated surface simply a snapshot of the emergent form.

I'm interested in the idea of sonic supersurfaces, partially because a practice of ME in sound is timely given our algorithmic tools, but also because it's an inherently generative way to work (Tropisms was a step in this direction). Sound has the obvious advantage of being able to capture the dynamics of growth. It was Goethe himself who said,

I call architecture frozen music. Really there is something in this; the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music.

So, sonic supersurfaces. A work in progress.