It is no longer a secret. Algorithms – information analysis and computing software – are hiding behind some architectural works. They are used to pool variables and are revolutionising architectural design. The proof is in the pictures.
In 1958, Le Corbusier designs the Philips Pavilion of the Brussels World Expo. Under a tent made of concrete, he installs sound devices that are at the forefront of innovation. This complex mineral structure is designed as an electronic poem where “the light, the design, the colour, the movement form a whole“. The building was a sensation. Sixty years later, the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have built a spectacular glass building topped with a roof in the shape of a wave on the banks of the Elbe river. The Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg is an architectural feat. As you might already have guessed: these masterful works have been made using algorithms, information analysis and computing software.
In Hamburg, you enter the Philharmonic Hall by an 82m escalator. The bright walls of this “tube” are the colour of seashell, a colour that unites the different floors of the large concert hall (2,100 spaces). As to the acoustics… it is the work of Yasuhisa Toyota. All the walls are covered with what he calls “white skin”. It is made of 10,000 gypsum fibreboard panels, all different and weighing between 30 and 125 kilos. The surface of the “white skin” is fascinating in its own right: it looks organic and has countless cells. It reminds us of coral. And yet, it has nothing to do with it.
In reality, the architects have used ‘parametric’ design, that is to say, the pooling of different parameters and variables: aesthetics, comfort, acoustics, technique. “Each panel was calculated in 3D and produced to the millimetre in order to obtain an optimal surface structure and reverberate a perfect sound,” says Jacques Herzog. Once the parameters are injected in the software, a series of complex calculations create models of each piece of gypsum, to be assembled one by one, to re-create the forms suggested by the algorithm.
Parametric design can also be used for large works, such as a bridge. This is, for example, the idea of the Italian architect Arturo Tedeschi with his concept named “Cloudbridge”, a quasi-organic extension between two mountains. Here’s how Tedeschi explains parametric design: “One could compare parametric software to a shaker, and the algorithm to a recipe,” he says. “We put specific quantities and combination of ingredients in the shaker, and then we press the button to see how trajectories and usual forms emerge.” Simple. Basic. But is this still architecture? “We believe that the parametric approach may lead architects towards new territories, which it is nothing to be afraid of,” says Arturo Tedeschi. “Because, fortunately, algorithms are not blind processes. The designers can balance their ‘ingredients’ in order to keep their personal touch.”