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Networks employed for form-finding

Theoretical paper, TU Delft, Vladimir Ondejcik, sup. H.Bier, 2012
" Download full version with illustrations at bottom of the page "


networks, flow, smart structures, form-finding, historical development


The paper provides research into basic principles of network theory (Wadhawan 2007) and discusses applications of networks in order to create a smart architectural object, an object that has ability respond to certain changes. The network logic was introduced to architecture in 17th century debates, where a horizontal understanding (network logic) emerged in form of charts, graphs. Even today we understand networks horizontally, despite few approaches to challenge that. In the 20th century the horizontality of networks was achieving its first peak and it created first truly networked architecture. The Romao catalogue (Le Corbusier) had direct influence on organization and form of buildings. (Wigley 2010) With the increase of electronic devices and establishment of World Wide Web, the networks had entered every aspect of our lives. We live within the network without knowing it and the only way of noticing this is the failure of the system by going offline offline. This act of getting objects and people on and off the network is the main focus of this paper. Today research in biological networks is well ahead and some interaction rules and behaviors are known. There is a common behavior in inter and intra cellular networks which can be applied also in architectural research. These behaviors are called network motifs (NMs) and the most common are negative auto regulation (feedback), fast forward loop and single input module and together with the hallmarks of biological design (robustness, modularity) will be main tools. (Wadhawan 2007) Next to the application of networks to form finding, the paper outlines the possibilities of materializing network behavior either with soft mater, nonmaterial or ferriotic materials. Along the process the formal representation of building form and the functioning of building components will be questioned.


As Burke states in his book Network practices: ” The networks are invisible medium around us, influencing our lives, like water for fishes.” (Burke 2010) Mitchell states in Me++: “The archetypal structure of network, with its accumulation and habitation sites, link dynamic flow patterns, interdependencies, and control points, is now repeated at every scale for that of neural networks and digital circuitry to that of global transportation networks.” (Mitchel 2003, 9) The new typology of smart structures are emerging today based on network logic. Spatial and functional organizations derived from networks are not new in architecture, but current trends are rediscovering networks from new perspectives of biological views and bottom up processes. They are the core in the design and behavior of smart architecture; an architecture that has an ability to adaptively respond to various changes. The question is how network theory, biological phenomena as swarm behavior and recent development in materials can create and organize this kind of building, its’ form and behavior. To answer the questions above, it is important to understand what a network is and how it works, both at biological and electronic level as well as how we can interact with network systems. Mark Wigley considered main characteristics of networks as follows: “Network is whole world system; a complete spatial system. It is a landscape without an exterior. The operational principle is redundancy. The idea of network is not about moving from one place to another, it is about distributed intelligence, it is a brain. Every thought are belonging to networks as a whole, regardless which par of geometry was triggered.” (Wigley 2010) Historical overview of the use of networks in architecture Through history, the influence of networks on architecture can be categorized into two categories. Those are: influence of body of network theory and influence in connection with the development of network technologies. According to Mark Wigley in the article Architectural Brain, the connectivity of networks is primarily visualized and perceived as horizontal. Wigley traced the beginning of this kind of horizontal thinking back to the late 17th century debates, where new understanding had emerged as a counter point to classical hierarchical theory. This new architectural thinking was represented with comparative charts and tables and was developed by personalities as J.N.L Durand (graph paper), G. Semper (encyclopedic comparative history), V. le Duc (anatomical dissections of buildings), B. Fuller (statistics on global resources) or CIAM (standardized analytical grid). The first direct influence of horizontal ideology of network theory on actual architectural form Wigley saw in creation of the Le Corbusiere’s Romeo Catalogue. The catalogue brought with it a new system of organizing and classifying architectural elements with direct influence of spatial organization and formal representation of architectural forms. Beside networked organization data, the large transportation networks had also impact on spatial organization of modernist architecture. The organization of interiors had also changed; into small circuits inspired by transportation and inside and outside became connected. After WW II, networks were becoming objects, K. Wachsmann’s, and B. Fuller’s space frames are objects that are more important, that space, they are enclosing. “The space frames are just making visible, the logic of the work of electronics.” (Wigley 2010)
[Fig. 1: Konrad Wachsmann, Experimental Structural Web, 1953]
In 1953, Wachsmann together with some of his students, tried to produce an ultimate architectural web. [Fig. 1] In his experimental web Wachsmann formed connections by twisting lines around others, and he removed any distinction between link and node. “It is the most extreme case of Wachsmann's attempts to produce "free space" by undermining the idea of "solid structure" in favor of a "porous character.” (Wigley 2010) Beside possibilities to extend this web in any direction, Wachsmann, create his illustrations with emphasis on horizontality. Wigley sees this as a precise technical form to the horizontal ambition of modernist architecture. In projects, from Fuller, through Archigram, Archizoom and Superstudio there was always a computer which drove the environment. Architecture was perceived and visualized as electronics. As an example of this Archigram’s Plug In City converted UK into small circuit board emphasizing possible extension. This horizontal extension did not have any limits and ended up in Superstudio’s Supersurface project (1972) “as a pure horizontal densely packed with the circuitry needed to sustain interactive life and spreading itself across every landscape.” (Wigley 2010)
[Fig. 2: Superstudio, Supersurface, 1972]
The second way how networks are influencing form is through development of network technologies. In architectural form new complex forms of architectural elements can be designed and manufactured with CAD/CAM technology instead of simple mass-produced ones. In case of spatial organization of architecture, it is necessary to distinguish between wired networks and wireless networks. While wired networks are creating points of access, wireless networks have access point everywhere. Together with the miniaturization of work places, wireless networks are breaking down rigid organization of specialized spaces. Compared to 20th century modernism, where design process started with selecting and optimizing functions, and separating and enclosing these functions with a concrete wall. With wireless networks, where one function can be accessed on various places or with a software change many functions can be access at one place without any physical change, the new design strategy is needed. ”The key instrument of traditional spatial organization was the written architectural program. The architecture of the 21st century can be far less about responding to rigid programs, and much more about creating flexible, diverse, humane, habitats for electronically supported nomadic occupation. It can be architecture not of stable routines and spatial patterns but, as Michael Batty has suggested of continually reconfiguring clusters of spatial events characterized by their duration, intensity, volality and location. As connectivity matters more, in many contexts, adjacency matters less, and architectural form is less tightly determined by the need to satisfy adjacency requirements.” (Mitchel 2003, 162)

Elements of network theory

“A network I s a discrete set of points (nodes), some can be joined by lines (edges). In biological networks, nodes are molecule and edges are reaction path ways. Edges are with or without direction.” (Wadhawan 2007) Depending on the edges we can divide networks to regular, random, and scale-free. In regular networks the closest nodes are connected in regular manner. Random networks employs randomized connections between nodes, the travel distance between any two nodes is usually very small. In scale-free type, few nodes have large amount of connections. Based on input and output the networks can be divided into isotropic networks (without precisely defined inputs and outputs) and anisotropic networks. The characteristic properties of networks are their robustness, modularity and hierarchical design. Module is a subset with elements of scale free networks, while modular design is best for accommodating changes. The important elements of network theory are network motifs (NM). NM can be characterized as a characteristic behavior for given network. In biological networks NMs implement fast and sophisticated reactions for input from sensors. The most common NM are negative auto regulation, feed forward loop, single input modules and dense overlapping regulons. NMs together with network properties and feedback loop can be used as tools to create networked bodies for smart architectural objects.
[Fig. 3: Feed Forward Loop (FFL) and Feed Back Loop (FBL)]
Experiment With the increasing wireless connectivity, the new trends of interconnecting physical world and virtual world are emerging. The virtual world is not anymore a tool in our lives, but a place where we are living significant parts of our lives. The interactivity of the virtual world is also shifted into new architectural approach of interactive architecture. In order to create this kind of buildings the bottom up process has to be implemented through whole design process. Swarm intelligence and biologically inspired networks are cores in this process. This behavior can be applied through all levels of urban and architectural design. I set up an experiment to explore use and advantages of such networked system in relation between building form and current master plan. Dynamic master plan tool for Transferium in Almere was constructed with several layers that step by step zoom in from regional area to building spatial and structural organization. To build up this system, a multidimensional network of data inputs had to be constructed. Data were linked within certain layer as well as between layers. In the each layer the swarm behavior was created. The tool connects various data input from regional level, as amount of travelers, peak times, and sizes of train stations in neighboring cities [Fig. 1], with a data collected from proposed development master plan from Almere Pampus [Fig. 2]. Further, dialogue between dynamic urban system and planned Transferium Building was implemented. This new dialogue, was created as a feedback loop, where building was being planned according master plan, and master plan in real time was implementing requirement from the building; both spatial and functional. This kind of living system can, as any living organism easily accommodates changes. For example a change in amount of travelers on line, would automatically adjust amount of platforms, size and shape of canopy over platforms, or functions of closest buildings around Transferium. This has an advantage to use in urban extensions of cities, where changes to original plan are instantly appearing. Similar manner should be reflected in building structure elements and envelope.
[Fig. 4: Sequence of the dynamic behavior of transportation system simulation in Almere area, showing different amount of travelers during time span, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kv6uzamOcYY] [Fig.5: Dynamic Master plan Almere 2.0, dynamic redistribution of functions with feedback loop between functions and newly planned Transferium building, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kv6uzamOcYY] [Fig. 6: Dynamic Master Plan, diagrammatic representation of functions, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kv6uzamOcYY]
Smart structures and materialization Dynamic properties of the network system can be embedded into real time behavior of building and building elements. The smart structures, “structures, which has the ability to respond adaptively in a pre-designed useful and efficient manner to changes in environmental conditions, as also in any changes in its own condition” (Wadhawan 2007), has to rely on new materials, which are the base for their sensorial and responsive or interactive functions. Wadhawan claims that the smart structures should have a nonlinear response. To achieve this, he suggested ferroic materials as sensors, because ferroic materials have nonlinear responses. He further argues that biological matter is soft and therefore the correct material to simulate biological networks is soft matter; polymers, gels and colloids. Also the memory polymers are very suitable to be used as actuators in smart structures. Perceptive Networks are good example how swarm behavior and network technology can work. Perceptive Networks are inspired by beehives and consists of small sensors and computer with Tiny OS. The elements are cheap to build and are produced in large quantities. Each mote (node, element) is linked with its’ neighbors. With wireless transmitters and low energy consumption, the various communication patterns can emerge, the whole system is modular and robust and equipped with swarm intelligence. The prototype mote from Culler and Muller Smart dust is just 5 mm2 big, and can work without batteries; the energy is harvested only with vibrations and ambient light. Today’s uses of perceptive networks are ranging from monitoring of structural strength of bridges to monitoring of seabirds. When non-linearly designed building, will be assembled from series of components, that are linked together in a manner of Perceptive Network, each component will be able autonomously react on inputs from its’ environment and other components, a result will be a smart building which can, non-linearly interact with users, environment or other buildings.


Burke. Network practices. Princton Press, 2010. Camanize. Selft-organisation in Biological systems. Princeton press, 2001. Mitchel. Me++. Cambridge: MIT press, 2003. Wadhawan. Smart Structures. Oxford, 2007. Weinstock. "selforganisation and material construction." Wigley, M. „Architectural Brain.“ In Network Practices, autor: Burke. Princton Press, 2010.

Images sources

Fig.1: (Burke 2010) Fig.2: (Burke 2010) Fig.3: http://c431376.r76.cf2.rackcdn.com/9348/fnmol-04-00009-HTML/image_m/fnmol-04-00009-g003.jpg Fig.4: author’s archive Fig.5: author’s archive Fig.6: author’s archive

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design: Vladimir Ondejcik (c)Vladimir Ondecik 2011
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