# THE FUNAMBULIST PAPERS 39 /// Membrane Attractors: Tension between form and information in digital architecture by Sébastien Bourbonnais

Pavillon Seroussi by Biothing (2007)

Sébastien Bourbonnais and I met after we realized through a common publication (see previous article) that we had a shared strong interest for French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (see previous articles Part 1 & Part 2). In the following essay, he uses the latter’s theory of form and information to analyze the creative logic of digitally generated architectures. Sébastien evokes the dematerialization of the line as the latter does not constitute a limit anymore but rather a force that literally informs design (one could argue that it desactivates my own interpretations of lines as the carrier of architecture’s inherent violence!) In doing so, he calls for an architecture of blurry thresholds which merges the form with its direct environment. I might object to Sébastien a certain form of optimism towards architects as the latter seem to have quite integrated the process of information that link together a set of data and a form; however the data they use seems too often inappropriate  if not frankly arbitrary. Gilbert Simondon himself, in his very precise descriptions of the technical processes and tools never evacuates their raison-d’etre. We can only wish the same to architects.

The Funambulist Papers 39 /// Membrane Attractors: Tension between form and information in digital architecture

by Sébastien Bourbonnais

«We should say that a good form is one near the paradox, near contradiction, and also it doesn’t be contradictory in its logic terms. »
Gilbert Simondon, «Forme, information, potentiels,»

Digital architecture showed a strong relation between information and the generation of form at the time of design. This relation is not so evident; it can be interpreted as a tensioning. We need to underline three different periods in the history of digital architecture in order to explain these different kinds of tensioning. At the end of 80s, Chris Yessios, creator of Form*Z, studied the computability of void architectural modeling. He proposed to classify the line as external or internal. During the 90s, the Mobius strip or the Klein bottle, used as icons by architectural teams like UNStudio, questions the ambiguity of the limit between external and internal based on the threshold indetermination. A line is no longer a simple line but an abstract machine used to explore different potential forms. That new understanding of representation obviously with the improvements in CAD software changed radically the ways of designing the project. The force is no longer limited to the line, neither to the form but to the entire field, as attractors. In recent projects, like in Seroussi Pavilion of Biothing, we can see that the field influences and directs the form (line).

These three periods, showing different tensions between lines and field, will be analyzed with the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989), specially based on his lecture Forme, Information, Potentiels given in 1960 (published in 2005). His thinking enables to deepen the relation between form and information by adding a new term to this relation: potentials. In his lecture, Simondon explains that a form should not be considered as a meeting with matter, or as an archetype but as a constant forming energy given by information. This new report with information proposed by software transforming the architectural object comes with new reflections. At this point, Simondon’s philosophy is applicable to better understand these three different periods in the history of digital architecture. It will be then possible to see the crystallized potentials in these specific processes of forming.

The Force of the Line

In 1987, after different uses of the solid modeling proposed by the engineering field, Chris Yessios remarks that they are not enough powerful for architectural design. “Ironically, as we fell in love with solid modeling and its set theoretic operations of union, intersection, and difference, we somehow failed to recognize its inefficiencies for architectural modeling.”[1] Yessios shows their limitation on modeling the architectural void after executing a series of operations. His article shows the difficulty to make these operations computable. It is easy for architectural designers to distinguish void part from filled part in a drawing consist of abstract lines. This cognitive operation is intuitive for architects. From that point of view, Yessios does not invent, but makes an architectural knowledge computational and repairs a fault. To reproduce this basic knowledge, Yessios creates a “void skins”. It is a kind of impervious membrane to which he attributes positive or negative force. A negatively charged line delimits internal and finish space, while a positively charged line opens up to an infinitive external space. This polarization of the line can be interpreted as a sort of simple interaction, but enough complex to enable a line to change its sign after a few operations. This is related to the essential role of the living membrane as explained by Simondon. “The living membrane […] is characterized as a region which separates the interior of exteriority: the membrane is polarized such permeable body in the centripetal direction or centrifugal, opposing the passage to another.” [2] The specificity of living membrane, unlike the artificial one, is that living membrane can always re-polarize itself, because it is alive. This parallelism between computer science and natural science is appeared in multiform. During the same period, Yessios explored generative algorithms based on fractal geometries, arabesque ornamentations, DNA/RNA biological processes, etc.,[3] for an architectural project in collaboration with Peter Eisenman. Digital architects used later this metaphor of growth by repeatedly referring to d’Arcy Thompson or by using Emergent theory. Following to these new possibilities offered by computer to design form, Yessios declared for his CAD software:  “Form*Z is against drawing.”[4] This is an important shift, but the line still exists. Architect doesn’t draw lines anymore, but still interacts with them.

The Continuity of the Threshold

A second shift appears when architects are able to “dematerializing” the line. That means removing its representational aspect. This becomes possible when architects start working with diagrams. In diagram logics, the line represents no longer a wall or an architectural element, but a potential force.

“The diagram is the trigger that activates the generative process and, at the same time, defines rules, margins, proportions, influences and dimensions. It acts as the bridge between the abstract and the material. This tool conceptually transforms ever changing information into an aesthetic, communication, a summary and a generator.”[5]

The diagram acts also like a bridge between information and form. The form of the diagram modulated by information (data) opens an “endless fluctuation” of form for architects, which crystallizes as a building form. Lots of UNStudio’s works is relevant for this intense exploration of diagrams and mathematical figures like the Mobius strip. The Changing Room, Venice, is a good example.

“Walls and floor merge into a single surface. Openings are neither windows nor doorways, but reduced to fissures along the different planes that envelope, open-up, and slide-past each other. Visual trajectories are continuous and the eye glides a long these running surfaces without points of discontinuity.”[6]

Viewers are no more able to clearly distinguish spaces. Spatial configuration of the Changing Room can be seen as a complete threshold, as an ambiguous space where the distinction between internal and external is disappeared. Architectural understanding shifts from object to field. However, this pproach is not new; it is probably related to the cybernetics period, with feedback operations and more with the theory of fields in physic and in chemistry. Simondon reveals in his work to understand the common based for human sciences between those focused on individual (psychological) and those focused on group (sociology). According to him, “field” is a key word to establish reciprocity between the part and the whole, inside a same field. Using the example of iron piece (under specific conditions), he says: “Once we place the piece in the field (magnetic one, with three magnets), then, this piece exists instantly in relation with the field, it is magnetizing.”  This magnetizing makes the piece react “like it was a creator magnets of the field by itself.”[7] For architecture, that means reciprocity between form and environment, a kind of co-existence. Finally, it is not really an ambiguous space but a strong tension between form and environment.

Design by Attractors

Some of the recent projects are integrating this tension directly in architectural design, like the computability of field attractors modeling. Design of Biothing for Seroussi pavilion used literally this attractor in order to give a form to the building, as it is explained in certain design elements.

“ Interior fabric is organized through the infrastructural “cocoons”. They are the system of veils that unfurls through the space building up the resolution and intricacy. Cocoon’s fibrous behaviors are grown through script, which distributes point changes along the line of FP trajectories and than weaves, the fibers within the (+/-) constellation of charges. […] Floor’s micro-dunning is developed through a complex attractor script operating between 2 sets of geometries. In this case, we used two asynchronous series of FP’s magnetic trajectories with parametrically variable density of surface meshes.”[8]

The interaction between attractors and surface meshes isn’t a sign of good design, but it can furthermore reveal some new potential hidden in that script. That tension between form, information and potential look like relevant to better understand the shift from form to process in design. In the particular case of digital architectures, it is important to focus on the appropriation and the on use of computer by architects. This appropriation should be done through a transductive method in order to be functional, that is the key notion in Simondon’s philosophy.

«Transductive operation is the propagation of an structure expending step by step from a structural germ in the field, like a supersaturated solution from a crystalline germ; which implies that the field should be in a metastability state, i.e. the field has a potential energy that can be released only by the appearance of a new structure, which is like a resolution of the problem. For that reason, information is not reversible. […] Germ is the transmitter, field is the receptor, and the border between transmitter and receptor moves in continuous way while the forming operation is progressing; we can say that this border between the structural germ and the field structurable is a modulator; that is the energy of the metastability of the field (matter), which allows the structure (form) to move forward; potential is in matter, and the border between form and matter is amplificatory relay.”[9]

That long quote reveals several important points: the need of metastability state of the field, the irreversibility of information, and the importance of the border (even for a threshold). The real force of Simondon’s transduction operation lies in the possibility of using it in three different levels of interpretation, and of nesting them. We can find a transduction operation between attractor simulated by software and form modeling; between architect and software; and between Seroussi Pavilion (as digital experimentation) and architectural culture. It is a series of transmitter and receptor for which the information is not reversible, but in addition, from which new structures can appear.

To be relevant, those series need to have a metastability state at each level. The short history of the digital architecture written since twenty-five years can lead to find such state of metastability. As Simondon says: “Condition which is maladjusted, and dedifferentiate, it is a domain in which have incompatibility and tension: it a domain where state coming metastable.”[10] This period of lag seen in a couple of 1990s’ forms of digital architecture brought simultaneously new potentialities to software, architects, and architecture. The Seroussi Pavilion looks like to be born from that new structuration of different fields.

Potential Still in the Membrane

In conclusion, we show that it is not enough to reveal the shift from form to process, or from form to information. We should find conceptual tools able to show all the consequences of this shift and the meanings of what is happening in the new relationship proposed by technologies. For that reason, the Simondon philosophy based on processes (individuation) gives us some tools to analyze this digital phenomena. The tension between form, information and potential seems a good way to approach this shift. In fact, we don’t have to investigate the whole formal possibility allowed by software, but we have to reveal the architectural form that keeps its potentiality alive. A form enables to open a new field of interactions with users.


1. Chris I. Yessios, «The computability of void architectural modeling», in Principles of computer-aided design: computability of design, edited by Yehuda E. Kalay. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987, p.143.
2. Gilbert Simondon, «Forme, information, potentiels», in L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information. Grenoble : Jérôme Million, 2005, p.225.
3. Chris I. Yessios, “A Fractal Studio.” Paper presented at the ACADIA, Integrating Computers into Architectural Curriculum, North Carolina 1987, p.169.
4. Pierluigi Serrano, History of Form*Z. Basel, Boston : Birkhaüser, 2002, p.6.
5. Andrea Sollazzo, Digital Van Berkel. Diagrams, Processes, Models of UNStudio. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2011, p.24.
6. Ibid., p.72.
7. Gilbert Simondon, op. cit., p.538.
8. Biothing, «Mesonic emission», in Pavillon Seroussi. Elias Guenoun (ed.), Orléans : Hyx, 2007, p.25.
9. Gilbert Simondon, op. cit., p.532.
10. Ibid., p.547.

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