22 January 2011

Blobitecture – The Rise of Organic Architecture

Experience Music Project, Seattle, Image Darwin Bell
They might perhaps be at risk of coming across like characters in a scene from a certain Monty Python film, but some people still insist on asking the question what have computers ever done for us?  One mooted answer could certainly be blobitecture (or, blobism, blobismus or blob architecture) for this architectural term could not have become reality without them.

Selfridges, Birmingham UK - Image Mags_cat
Selfridges, Birmingham UK - Image Wojtek Gurak
Selfridges, Birmingham UK - Image Wojtek Gurak
Yet what is blobitecture?  It is a term for an architectural school in which organic shapes are the aim, bulging, cellular, amoeba-like buildings its expression.  Although the term did not appear in print until 2002, blob architecture had been used as an expression in architectural circles since the middle of the previous decade.  Notably it was the New York Times which first brought it to greater attention, as part of William Safire’s On Language column.

Guggenheim Bilbao, Image dyangchi
Guggenheim Bilbao, Image cuellar
Safire did not use the term politely.  However, it was a word that, thanks to his denigration of the form, took off and came to define it.  Yet definitions change and when Safire launched it on to the wider world it the word (and the form as people saw it) would evolve.

The Sage, Gateshead UK - Image alephnaught
Millennium Bridge and The Sage, Gateshead UK - Image Simon and Vicki
The Sage, Gateshead YK - Image hap
Blobitecture is distinct from other architectural forms as it wholly created from computer-aided design (CAD). Architects employ CAD to control buildings' outlines to practically any form. To enable them to do this, the software automatically computes mathematical equations that implant structural accuracy and dependability into the design. Before CAD's maturity as a tool, architects remained in thrall to a conventional geographical character as they were certain that these shapes had structural stability. Now, thanks to CAD software, the shape of a building has unlimited potential.

Experience Music Project, Seattle - Image Darwin Bell
Experience Music Project, Seattle - Image J-Bird in K-Town
Experience Music Project, Seattle - Image Selva
We have architect Greg Lynn to thank for the original term – he invented it in 1995 to give definition to his experiments in digital design.  He used metaball software, the technique for which had been invented by Jim Blinn (a NASA computer scientist) in the first years of the 1980s. This blobby modelling (real term) enabled the creation of organic-looking n-dimensional objects, where n is the number of dimensions (usually 2 or 3) being measured.

The Blob, Eindhoven Netherlands - Image Andrew B47
The Blob, Eindhoven Netherlands - Image Truss, Bob + Jan too
Lynn used the term as a substitute for biomorphic form, deriving it from a kind of acronym from a technical description of a computer-formed shape - a binary large object.  He envisioned blob architects discovering a new form of splendor, sophistication and elegance in the voluptuous, cadenced and undulating shape of differential calculus.

Zlote Tarasy, Warsaw Poland - Image Zlote Tarasy
Zlote Tarasy, Warsaw Poland - Image Wasilka
Zlote Tarasy, Warsaw Poland - Image Access.Denied
Put simply, without computer-aided design, blobitecture would be impossible – as would the new and unusual forms that architects and furniture designers were experimenting with shortly after Lynn.  The manipulations of the algorithms needed to derive the forms are impossible to do on paper.

City Hall, London - Image Kol Tregaskes
City Hall, London - Image Dmitry B
City Hall, London - Image K_Gradinger
Yet if you view blob architecture from the idea of form rather than that of technology there are certainly precedents – and buildings that would fill your definition.  Projects by Buckminster Fulller, famous for geodesic domes, have the style and structure which would later be associated with blob architecture.  The English architectural group Archigram was interested in shapes that could be created from plastic or even inflated.  Their ideas would be likely looked upon as blob by at least the layman.

Graz Art Musem, Graz Austria - Image rpeschetz
Graz Arts Museum, Graz Austria - Image Watz
Graz Arts Museum, Graz Austria - Image Identity Chris Is
A member of Archigram, Peter Cook, would go on to be at the forefront of blob architecture with the Graz Art Museum (Austria) in 2003.  This building and others has taken the definition of blob architecture from its original, if narrow, interpretation – that it was to be born solely from computer modeling techniques. 

Aqua Tower, Chicago - Image ChicagoGeek
Aqua Tower, Chicago - Image John Picken
Aqua Tower, Chigo - Image John Picken
With any definition, one must go with the zeitgeist. Meanings change and now blobitecture is associated much more widely than Lynn’s original idea.  In fact any odd shaped or looking building is often referred to as an example of the form, which while not being correct, is right in terms of the popular definition of the word.

Experience Music Project, Seattle - Image Selva
Guggenheim Bilbao - Image Le French Monster
Frank Gerhy took to Blob architecture in 1997 with his design for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and followed it up with EMP|SFM (known as the Experience Music Project for short) in 2000.  Yet although these would to the untrained eye look the epitome of blob architecture, following its narrowest of definitions, they are not.  The reason?  They were designed using physical models rather than computer manipulations.

Dancing House, Prague - Image gdelargy
Gare de Seine, Paris - Image Alexandre Vialle
This is despite the fact that advanced computer-aided design software was used in their design. CATIA was particularly instrumental in the design of both buildings. This stands for Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application and is a multi-platform CAD/CAM/CAE commercial software suite developed by the French company Dassault Systemes.  It is marketed worldwide by IBM.

Philological Library, Berlin - Image maha-online
Philological Library, Berlin - Image Credit Jonas_K
Technically the first building designed through pure blob architectural techniques was the Water Pavilion, a temporary structure in Holland which stood from 1993 – 1997.  It was built by Lars Spuybroek (NOX) and Kas Oosterhuis and was of a fully computer based nature. Its interior was fully electronically interactive – light and sound could be changed by visitors.

Allianz Arena, Munich - Image Trodel
Allianz Arena. Munich - Image dloop
Another building that is considered blob architecture are the Allianz Arena by Herzog and de Meuron. Norman Foster has also involved himself with blob architecture, with his design for the Philological Library in Berlin as well as the Sage Gateshead which both opened in 2004.

Graz Arts Museum, Graz Austria - Image Weiko
As architects break further free from traditional geometrical shapes, blobitecture is expected to become a more familiar aspect of global cityscapes. CAD is able to produce unlimited forms of blob architecture and many motivated architects are taking advantage of blobism’s seemingly unlimited boundaries to thrust architecture to its farthest limits.