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Reappraising Configuration and its Potential for Collaborative Objects

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This year's conference theme`Towards a new configurable architecture`, provides a good starting point for reappraising and reapplying previous concepts of Configuration' in architectural design. The concept reappears often, but was particularly powerful whenever new computational tools and architectural concepts emerged and revealed strong synergies. In the 1960ties there was such a moment when configuration's pluralistic properties embraced architectural concepts of structuralism and early computing. Therefore this paper looks back at previous concepts of configuration to identify capacities that could inform current synergies of computational tools, such as open platforms, and architectural concepts of the second digital turn in architecture. The way we communicate, access, and exchange information recently accelerated towards realtime sharing of data, bits & pieces, and experiences. Open platforms that enable user-generated content and collective production of value are becoming more common in design. This paper discusses ways in which this collective content production can enable a computational and human-centric architecture, by reappraising previous concepts of configuration such as: open configurations, latent structures and variable infills.
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Reappraising Configuration and its Potential for
Collaborative Objects
Alexander Grasser1, Alexandra Parger2
1,2Institute of Architecture and Media, Graz University of Technology
1contact@alexandergrasser.com 2alexandra.parger@gmail.com
This year's conference theme `Towards a new configurable architecture`, provides
a good starting point for reappraising and reapplying previous concepts of
`Configuration' in architectural design. The concept reappears often, but was
particularly powerful whenever new computational tools and architectural
concepts emerged and revealed strong synergies. In the 1960ties there was such a
moment when configuration's pluralistic properties embraced architectural
concepts of structuralism and early computing. Therefore this paper looks back
at previous concepts of configuration to identify capacities that could inform
current synergies of computational tools, such as open platforms, and
architectural concepts of the second digital turn in architecture. The way we
communicate, access, and exchange information recently accelerated towards
realtime sharing of data, bits & pieces, and experiences. Open platforms that
enable user-generated content and collective production of value are becoming
more common in design. This paper discusses ways in which this collective
content production can enable a computational and human-centric architecture,
by reappraising previous concepts of configuration such as: open configurations,
latent structures and variable infills.
Keywords: Collaborative Objects, Open Configurations , Latent Structures,
Vaiable Infill, Realtime Platform, Participation
Ars Combinatoria
In general, a configuration is defined as: the particular
arrangement or pattern of a group of related parts.[1]
It derives from the Latin word “configurare”: ‘shape
after a pattern’ from: con ‘with, together’ + figurare ‘to
form, shape’ [2] - that was introduced in the 16th cen-
tury to denote the relative position of celestial ob-
jects, therefore describing it’sform based on relations
and patterns of collaborative objects.
Today configuration is commonly used in the
context of computing, as software and hardware
are embedded in a standardized and open struc-
ture/framework/network, that enables the exchange
and adaptation of compatible components, here
configuration is a process to: arrange or order (a com-
puter system or an element of it) so as to fit it for a
designated task.[2] This fundamental requirement for
universal compatibility of parts and their relations to
other parts in computational systems leads to a de-
sign method where: “ Configuration is a special type of
Collaborative, participative or responsive design - Volume 1 - eCAADe 39 |181
design activity, with the key feature that the artifact be-
ing designed is assembled from a set of predefined com-
ponents that can only be connected together in certain
ways.” (Mittel, Fraymann 1989)
It is not by chance that the concept of configu-
ration is a recurring method in architectural design
as its modus operandi of ordering, arranging, version-
ing as well as its capacity for individualization and
customization, reveals fundamental tectonic design
principles. “No idea in the theory of architecture is more
seductive than that architecture is an ars combinato-
ria - a combinatorial art: the idea that the whole field
of architectural possibility might be made transparent
by identifying a set of basic elements and a set of rules
for combining them so that the application of one to
the other would generate the architectural forms which
exist, and open up possibilities that might exist and be
consistent with those that do. (Hillier 2015) From, the
classical order and its specific components of greek
columns, to descriptive sets of rules and parts of Vit-
ruv, to catalogs of parts and patterns of Durand, to
the universal system of the Modulor by Le Corbus-
ier, to a period of modular and metabolistic design,
and to recent concepts of digital architecture such as
parametricism or discrete architecture, - all have in
common, a general tendency to embrace the config-
urational and combinatorial methods of using parts
and rules or patterns to aggregate architectural form.
Therefore it is valuable to look back at previous
concepts of configuration in architecture and reap-
praise their capacity for reapplying and reevaluating
them for computational design.
REAPPRAISING CONFIGURATION IN
STRUCTURALISM
In the 1960ties, a critique of modernism led to
two main new tendencies in architectural discourse,
one towards postmodernism, and one that followed
structuralist ideas and cybernetic systems that: saw
the computer as a partner for democratic forms of con-
versation - developing computer languages and pro-
grams that offered a more participatory approach to
the urban fields. (Gethmann 2017) Furthermore the
concept of configuration, simultaneously reemerged
in the fields of architecture and computing, influ-
encing each other, and leading to early concepts
of computer-aided architectural design. The work
of the Architecture Machine Group of Nicholas Ne-
groponte at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-
nology - MIT, as well as their collaboration with
Yona Friedman, can be considered a milestone.
The projects: SEEK (Blocksworld), Architecture- by -
yourself (Weinzapfel, Negroponte 1976), the Flatwriter
and YONA, are well-documented highlights of those
synergies(Vardouli 2013).
Concerning the structuralist project, the work of
the Austrian architect Bernhard Hafner, highlights
configuration as a design method. Bernhard Hafner
can be considered one of the founders of structural-
ist architecture in Austria since his exhibition “Struk-
tureller Städebau”, in 1966 at the Forum Stadtpark,
received extensive international recognition. To-
day some of the exhibited models, such as from his
project “Linear City” are part of the collection at the
FRAC Centre in Orléans. Moreover, Hafner moved to
Los Angeles for a professorship at UCLA School of Ar-
chitecture and Urban Planning from 1967-74. There
his projects ‘Comparative Simulation of Alternative
Urban Prototypes’, as well as it’s application on a com-
petition in Vienna, mark a milestone where computa-
tional tools and behavioral simulation were used for
urban design.(Gethmann 2017) So on the one hand
Hafner applied configuration as a tectonic method in
structuralist architecture, and on the other hand, uti-
lized configuration as an organizational method for
behavioral modeling. However, the act of configur-
ing - of arranging and ordering parts - in architecture
and computation anticipated further developments
of computer-aided design tools, and therefore these
projects have high capacities to be revisited, reap-
praised, and to get reapplied.
Therefore this paper will synthesize Hafner’s the-
ory on structuralism in architecture, by highlighting
three main concepts that have the capacity to inform
current computational design: open configurations,
latent structures, and variable infill.
182 |eCAADe 39 - Collaborative, participative or responsive design - Volume 1
Figure 1
Bernhard Hafner,
‘Mehrdeutige
Zuordnung’, in:
Hafner, Bernhard
2002,Architektur
und sozialer
Raum:Aufsätze und
Gespräche über
Architektur und die
Stadt, Löcker,
Vienna, p.325
Open Configurations
Bernhard Hafner defines Structuralist architecture
as follows: “architectural objects configured in as-
sembled form. (Hafner 2002) Configuration was an
essential method to design Structuralist architec-
ture(Hertzberger 2015), where units, parts, and poly-
valent parts (Hertzberger 2014) that are compatible
with each other, were configured, ordered, and set
in relation to each other to assemble buildings as
open form. Bernhard Hafner describes this as: “The
configured form of structural architecture is not - deter-
ministic. It is aesthetically, spatially, and functionally
pluralistic. Structural architecture is time-dependent,
social, and democratic. It is contextual.”(Hafner 2002)
Applying his theory on an urban scale, means, to
first design infrastructure and then over time and
according to social demand, develop the plots of
land, according to different uses. Similarly, on a
building scale, the infrastructure and construction
are the main concerns, since the use or the function
of a specific space is regarded as a temporary oc-
cupation, which might change frequently. Further-
more, its non-deterministic open form allows for fur-
ther growth or degrowth, and flexible adaptations if
needed.
This suggests that Structuralist architecture
stands for a configuration that is non-deterministic
because it is open and free in its assembly and there-
fore unfinished. These open structures offer a robust
framework for inviting the context, the community,
and its users to contribute and add value to the open
configuration, similar to qualities that Mario Carpo
assigned to digital platforms, like Wikipedia, ”This is
why we are - slowly - getting used to technical objects of
all kinds that are never finished nor ever stable; which
are designed for permanent evolution and variations,
and seem to live forever in trial mode, always waiting
for the next patch or fix - to some extent working most of
the time, but never entirely or fully predictably. (Carpo
2013)
By reappraising the concept of an open configu-
ration of structuralism, and enabling versioning and
flexible adaptations, as we see it in computational
open platforms, which allow user-generated content,
open configuration as a design method can enable a
resilient architecture as a collective project.
Latent Structures
Considering that a property of a configuration is to
be built following specific rules or patterns, these set
of regulations can be based on part to part relation-
ships, as well as follow specific instructions, or so-
cial interactions. Bernhard Hafner calls this “Latent
Structures”: “In the social space of society, they gen-
Collaborative, participative or responsive design - Volume 1 - eCAADe 39 |183
Figure 2
Open
Configuration, at
the Realtime
Architecture
Platform
erate a socio-economic order that is manifested in be-
havioral patterns.”(Hafner 2002) . Although, one has
to be careful when applying a specific pattern or set
of rules that follow traditional methods of ordering
objects such as composition. If composition rules fol-
low a certain ratio, like the golden ratio, for example,
it is considered a close system, as it is a top-down
logic, resulting in a deterministic form. This leads to
a closed-form that loses its ability to be further re-
configured. Whereas non-deterministic latent struc-
tures provide a framework that can follow individ-
ual sets of rules and customized patterns of an as-
sembly logic, which follow a bottom-up logic of lo-
cal design decisions, enabling an architecture of tan-
gible complexity (Grasser, Parger, Hirschberg 2020).
Therefore the planning of open structures could en-
able community engagement where: “ the comple-
tion of collective form overtime does not lie with the sin-
gle authorship. It can and should have a plurality of au-
thors because of the diversity that promotes freedom;
completion through freedom and diversity within lim-
its.”(Hafner 2002)
In the current discourse of the discrete, simi-
lar bottom-up logic can be identified as Mollie Clay-
pool writes: ”In a Discrete ecology the meaning and
value of the relationships between different agents
emerges through their appearance rather than a top-
down approach, as an accumulation of self-similar
parts into heterogeneous assemblies, over time. This
suggests a new understanding of the ecology between
things, where the relationship between individuals, so-
ciety, and nature should not be fixed or predetermined
through top-down universalism. (Claypool 2020)
Provided that, we can assume that parts that can
be configured belong to a shared network of latent
structures that follow an individual set of rules. In
this sense, the word “configurare” meaning “shape
after pattern” introduces the activity of configuring,
regarding those patterns and relations as a bottom-
up latent structure of social value, and their capacity
for shared authorship.
Variable Infill
Furthermore, these open structures can likewise have
the potential for mass individualization and cus-
tomization on an urban scale and an architectural
scale. In other words, the concept of variable infill
can be adapted to a city, a building, a house, a room
etc. Non-deterministic open configurations, based
on latent structures, can be adapted over time with
the variable infill, as Hafner writes: ”Each representa-
tion of structural architecture shows only one possibil-
ity among many: the one that corresponds to a certain
choice of architectures from the infill program and air
184 |eCAADe 39 - Collaborative, participative or responsive design - Volume 1
Figure 3
Variable Infill
spaces. The network is a potential, which allows differ-
ent solutions of filling. It allows and ensures architec-
tural diversity. (Hafner 2002) Each part in the structure
can get individually informed, updated, adapted,and
reconfigured, as they are embedded in a system of
compatible units or parts. Here a rationalized kit of
parts or all unique parts can be placed in a network
of configured compatible parts. (Figure 1) This con-
cept of variable infill was explored in structuralism as:
Variation through Participation - in projects of Eilfried
Huth ‘Variety as Principle’(Zach 1996), John Habraken
‘Support and Infill’(Habraken 1999), or Lucien Kroll ’An
Architecture of Complexity(Kroll 1986).
As it is an open system, where the input and
infill can be manifold, “Variation through Participa-
tion” also applies to digital architecture, as in digi-
tal architecture, open structures and systems, allow
for user-generated variability as Mario Carpo sug-
gests: “All that is digital is variable, and all that is dig-
itally variable is potentially open to interaction, com-
munality and participation.” (Carpo 2013) Any compu-
tational logic, digital process or parametric rule set
in an open system allows for a diverse input, where
the users of the space can pick and choose configu-
rations and make individual design decisions within
the limits of the proposed algorithm. Therefore a
more human-centric computational architecture is
possible as Daniel Köhler explains: ”It is no longer
the performance or mode of an algorithm that drives
change but its participatory capacities. (Koehler 2020)
As a consequence of opening up the design process,
Mollie Claypool regards the role of the architect as
following: “ The role of the architect becomes one of fa-
cilitation of a framework of production, linking the dig-
ital tools for design and fabrication in a way that makes
them accessible.” (Claypool 2020)
That said, the introduced special design activ-
ity of configuration, meaning working with a set of
parts in an open computational framework, allows
for mass-customization and architectural variation. I t
can be seen that the use of digital configurators has
had an essential influence on opening architectural
systems and providing a more participatory building
process as well as individualized architectural infills.
CASE STUDY, REALTIME COLLABORATIVE
OBJECTS
At last, following previous research on open architec-
tures, realtime architectural platforms, and collabora-
tive objects, a case study project is introduced. It is
proposing a custom open realtime platform, devel-
oped by the authors. Based on the concept of ”Col-
laborative Objects” it enables realtime participatory
engagement in spatially distributed teams. Further-
Collaborative, participative or responsive design - Volume 1 - eCAADe 39 |185
Figure 4
Latent Structures
more, it is reappraising and implementing previous
concepts of: open configurations, latent structures,
and variable infill.
Realtime Open Configurations. The platform repre-
sents a persistent virtual environment that invites for
an open configuration of multiple authors.(Figure 2)
During realtime design session at the platform, par-
ticipants place their parts and are actively contribut-
ing to the digital configuration. It is an open design
process as all online users share the same context
and can contribute to the open configuration at any
time, therefore it’s non-deterministic. Change and
improvement play an important role in the sessions,
as users need to react in realtime to local design deci-
sions. Furthermore pervasive collaboration (Grasser,
Parger, Hirschberg 2020) and communication within
the group are embraced, as different spatial configu-
rations of parts can be discussed and improved. The
assembled structure is a network of relationships be-
tween collaborative objects in space and time. As a
result there is no static form, more a ‘work in progress’
or ‘beta version’ of an collective architectural project.
Realtime Latent Structures. Hereby a fundamen-
tally digital architecture of discrete parts gets in-
formed by personalized design value and compu-
tational design strategies. The open configuration
at the realtime platform is based on individual kits
of parts, and individual patterns that embed certain
combinatorial assembly logic, revealing multiple la-
tent structures of multiple authors. (Figure 4) The
platform’s framework allows for local design deci-
sions of part to part relations, as well as provokes
communication and negotiation on a global scale, re-
sulting in a multi-subjective collaborative whole.
Realtime Variable Infill. Furthermore, the collabo-
rative objects, the shared parts, embrace the con-
cept of variable infill. They embed individual visions
of spatial appropriation, and mass customization en-
suring an architectural variation through participa-
tion. (Figure 3) In this sense, this platform is pro-
viding a human-centric computational framework for
the stacked building components of the many. These
open architectures represent a fuzzy form of user-
generated architectural content of tangible complex-
ity. (Figure 5)
Conclusion
Reappraising previous concepts of configuration can
be valuable, since: the inherent logic of arranging
and ordering parts in an open configuration, the
embedded behavioral patterns in latent structures,
and the capacity to enable variation through par-
ticipation via variable infills; amplifies and acceler-
ates synergies in tectonic and computational appli-
186 |eCAADe 39 - Collaborative, participative or responsive design - Volume 1
cations, providing a framework for a computationally
enhanced and human-centric collective architecture
that is adaptable, resilient and open.
Credits
The Realtime Architecture Platform, developed by
Alexander Grasser and Alexandra Parger was applied
with a group of students as part of the W6 - Intro-
ductory Workshops 2020 at the B- Pro, The Bartlett
School of Architecture.
W6 Instructors: Alexander Grasser, Alexandra
Parger
W6 Students: Grigoriadou Despoina, Pagar Saee,
Yue Chen, WangHoanan, Liu Yuexi, Quan Zikun, Guo
Zhihan, Pan Huiyin, Lui Yuqi, Duan Yaxin, Du Yang,
Feng Jing, Wang Aijia, Zhang Huan, Zhan Beiyuan,
Wang Yunhao, Bayraktaroglu Yelay
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[1] https://www.etymonline.com/word/configuration
[2] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english
/configuration
[3] https://www.frac-centre.fr/_en/art-and-architecture
-collection/rub/rubauthors-316.html?authID=231
Collaborative, participative or responsive design - Volume 1 - eCAADe 39 |187
Figure 5
Collaborative
Whole
188 |eCAADe 39 - Collaborative, participative or responsive design - Volume 1
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Digital indeterminism: the new digital commons and the dissolution of architectural authorship
  • Mario Carpo
Carpo, Mario 2013, 'Digital indeterminism: the new digital commons and the dissolution of architectural authorship', in Lorenzo-Eiroa, Pablo (eds) 2013, Architecture in Formation: On the nature of information in digital architecture, Routledge, New York, pp. 48 -52
The Architecture Machine: The Role of Computers in Architecture
  • Claypool
Claypool, Mollie 2020, 'Architecture Goes Digitla: The Discrete', in Fankhänel, Teresa and Lepik, Andres (eds) 2020, The Architecture Machine: The Role of Computers in Architecture, Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH, Basel, pp. 60-68
Integrated planning and the design of urban agglomeration
  • Gethmann
Gethmann, Daniel 2017, 'Integrated planning and the design of urban agglomeration: Bernhard Hafner', arq: Architectural Research Quarterly, Volume 21, pp. 10 -20
Architecture and structuralism: The ordering of space, nai010 publishers
  • Herman Hertzberger
Hertzberger, Herman 2015, Architecture and structuralism: The ordering of space, nai010 publishers, Rotterdam