The Malleable Manifesto
by Brandon Clifford
Image by Dave Pigram, Protosynthesis
Architects seem to be preoccupied with variability more than ever. It isn’t hard to understand why, especially when considering contemporary digital culture. We exist in a world bombarded with opportunities to build new social profiles. Each of our embodiments somehow performs differently from previous ones. We update our status instantly only to change it moments later. This culture embraces endless modification and resists resolution. The lack of terminus in contemporary digital culture removes a fear of commitment and nourishes our desire for the unique. It is no longer necessary to compromise our intentions in service of permanence. Iteration, uniqueness, and change are king. This culture is emerging in architecture as well. The profession commonly associated with permanence is becoming malleable.
Malleability is not simply a material property. It is liberation from constraints of resolution that responds to contingency. To therefore describe something as malleable is to acknowledge an object’s capacity for change in response to a force. For sake of clarity, let us address a few material property examples. Rubber stretches only when it is pulled apart. Ice melts only when heat is applied. Our typical conception of architecture is to mute these changes, to ultimately ensure stability. Perhaps this compulsion to freeze is because the idea of continual (and potentially unscripted) change occurring in the built environment is antithetical to our assumption of architects as authors. How can unscripted change be authored? We may have this compulsion to halt and stabilize, but it is merely a conceptual act. Malleability has always existed, for instance, in the various iterations during the design process. It exists in the inevitable weathering and decay of buildings. It exists in the palimpsest of scars created through occupation. It also exists in a select few projects that resolve the concept with literal movement such as Villa Girasole as a means to track the sun. Even though malleability has existed in architecture, somehow our discourse turns a blind eye to this truth. Now is the time to remove this unwarranted aversion to malleability. Our contemporary architecture process is full of life. Why do we kill this process to construct the building?
In the past decade, a proliferation of digital manufacturing techniques such as tessellating, contouring, and sectioning have allowed architects to take the first steps toward a digitized malleable architecture. A malleable architecture revolts against the idea of standardized construction, instead taking full advantage of automation. Through automation, this now more malleable form of architecture is able to compete with standardization in terms of manufacturing efficiency; eliminating the comparative advantage of mass production over mass customization. Robots could care less if every part is unique. These exercises in geometric variability in conjunction with the automation of making are allowing architects to generate specific (custom) architectural responses. The result is a dethroning of modernist universality in favor of a malleable construction unit.
By communicating through computers to machines that create custom parts, architecture is once again free from the oppressive mold of standardization. Generating complex geometry after complex geometry, bragging about variability and parametric alterations — only to create an architecture frozen in time? Walls bend and flex with the click of a mouse, but—once built—they become static. Why do we limit ourselves to such methods? Why are we satisfied with only making curvy ribs and complex perforations? These clichéd techniques have become a vacuous stylistic exercise originally intended to evoke the effect of dynamism through a temporally static object. How did this contradiction emerge? As it turns out, it is extremely difficult to extend the malleable culture beyond the drawing process.
The contemporary design process arguably extended malleability because it is supported by parametric and other computational models, which promote change as a viable approach; however, the extension of the design system into a constructible unit commonly undergoes a freezing moment. The variability inherent to the design process is unfortunately abandoned at first sight of physicality. All malleability is removed and all variables are halted. The system is built in an idealized state. Perhaps this peculiar moment of freezing is due to the convention of transferring drawings from the architect to the contractor. If previously, the process operated initially as a highly malleable process in the form of sketching. The presumption is that this malleability slowly diminishes as it approaches the construction phase where the word ‘change order’ is a death sentence to an architect. Today, with the aid of digital fabrication, a paradigm shift has occurred. Change is now embraced as a collaborative opportunity. Parametric alterations in response to site-specific forces are currently the norm. This malleability has not only impacted the relationship between the architect and the contractor. It has also persuaded the architect to indulge in complexity. When working with a complex figure considered impractical without the aid of digital fabrication, one applies the previously mentioned techniques to break the larger geometry down into construct-able units — a process previously left to the contractor in the form of shop drawings. By undermining this convention, architects reclaim control, an ethos that has aided in rendering our architecture temporally static. Ultimately this process is hardly different from the approval of a final set of drawings to be built. Complex geometries mask an otherwise normative architectural process — design, decide, build. Instead, the malleable process should be embraced for its potential to revolutionize our concept of animating space creation, not simply break it down into unique construction units.
In recent years, a deluge of projects have introduced malleability in the form of a generative process. Such projects signal a paradigmatic shift in our perception of the design process. Take for example the works of Axel Killian, Supermaenouvre, and Kokkugia. These works use animation to represent and promote this malleable design process; however, the process is anything but an animation. Animations are linear and pre-determined, while these works are real time applications responding to inputs. Some of these applications even produce varied results each time they run. This process embraces malleability and rejects the notion that authorship is determined by static results instead of processes. Working on a foundation created by analog studies, these demonstrations of real time feedback, aided by computers, evolved the perception of authorship. As many of these designs bear root in mathematics as generators, authorship is blurry and oftentimes indefinable. The architects listed above exemplify such blurring every time they publish their scripts, programs, and algorithms as open source code to the public. Anyone is welcome to re-author these works. This open source policy is in it-self a vehicle for malleability. Unfortunately the advancement of malleability is halted every time the stop button is slammed and the permanent solution selected — thereby re-inserting authorship into the equation. Projecting to the future — physical architecture will became a manifestation of this conceptually fluid process. This process does not start or end in order to create, but rather is continual and responsive in simultaneous reciprocity with the built form and it’s environment, thus reconsidering the hindrance of authorship. These speculative research projects do advance our tendency towards malleability in architecture, but mainly in conception and process. Bridging the gap to physicality appears to be an insurmountable task proving difficult — but not impossible.
Other architects apply the concept of malleability to physical objects. Here, it is important to note that movement does not characterize the results of these architects’ research practices. That would be an all-too-easy categorization of their work. Like architects who embrace algorithmic techniques in service of their designs, those who apply the concept of malleability in physical objects do so by privileging feedback. Making a tower that spins and twists does not advance the discourse. Making a physical object that responds to information with real time feedback does. For example, with a time-lapse camera, one may record the decay of a building over time, and ultimately produce a video of the slow (and now fast) erosion of an object. This video would of course be compelling and seductive, but it is important to separate the seduction of change, movement, and kinetics from this definition of malleability. Decay does not occur for the sake of change. It occurs in response to external forces, be they wind, water, organic matter, or others. It is not scripted, not pre-determined.
One strong example of a malleable object is the Defensible Dressby the research and design team of Eric Höweler and Meejin Yoon. This dress exemplifies physical malleability through a focused exercise in making. Aided by sensors and actuators, the dress recognizes an intruder approaching through a measurement of distance. It reacts to this information by expanding and defending its host. This dress does one thing and one thing only — it defends. Höweler and Yoon pick up where the process driven researchers left off, but the project lacks the versatility the algorithms demonstrate so well. Projecting to the future, we would find a dress that defends and embraces, harasses, or even ignores.
A slightly more dynamic example would be the Hyposurface Wall by Marc Goulthorpe of Decoi. Decoi’s work straddles a fine line between the virtual and physical—the Hyposurface Wall is not only an architectural object that responds to real-time feedback, but it is also operated by a software that is endlessly editable. And like any physical project to date, this wall is subjected to constraints, the largest being the configuration of the standardized units that aggregate to make the whole. This malleability bypasses the configuration and takes refuge in the software and kinetic interaction.
Physical malleability need not be actuated. Take for example Logic Matter by Skylar Tibbits of SJET. This project extends the body of research in physical computation into the discourse of architecture. Tibbits claims “This system suggests a new paradigm for computing, one that materializes the capabilities of a hard drive and processor from a single sequence of inputs.” Will we approach a time when the architecture itself is computing? I argue we already have. We are simply denying it.
I am not calling for a strictly kinetic architecture. I am calling for our discourse to admit to itself our yearning for change. I am calling for the recognition that architecture is already malleable. I am calling for a abolishment of the assumption our profession is dedicated to permanence and stability. I am calling for an architecture where our conception of variability and response extend beyond the CAD program used to design it, through the CAM process that makes it, and to the architecture itself. This malleable concept must endure beyond the software. Imagine a world where your individual environment responds to both you as well as your greater surrounding. Imagine a future where the built environment and design process work in reciprocity, responding to various agents of information. Imagine a future where architecture is unshackled from its falsely assumed allegiance to permanence. This future will house an architecture of malleability. It will be anything but static.
We are dedicated to
reciprocity between drawing and making
We revolt against
the assumption that architects are not responsible for the means and methods of making
the death of architecture