Architectural Context Part 10: Greg Lynn & Stan Allen

Excerpt from: Architectural Context in the Age of Big Data

Architectural Context Part 9: Physical Context

The Digital Turn

There were several influences that collectively contributed to the emergence of the digital paradigm in architecture. One of those influences was the form of response to the fragmentation and fracture of postmodern collage systems and a movement towards continuity and the pursuit of fundamentally different part-to-whole relationships within architecture.

The conceptual basis for this continuity was found in Gilles Deleuze’s conceptual philosophy and in Rene Thom’s catastrophe diagrams (Figure Below).

Gilles Deleuze, The Baroque House. From Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 5.
Cusp Catastrophe diagram, René Thom.

According to Carpo, Deleuze’s “The Fold Leibniz and the baroque” essentially can be interpreted as a vast hermeneutic of continuity applied to Leibniz’s conceptual ideas, his mathematics, and the baroque art.¹ The concepts defined in Deleuze’s work were introduced to the field of architecture primarily through the articulation of Peter Eisenman and his projects that explored parallel architectural analogies of Deleuzian philosophical concepts. The diagram of the Deleuzian fold carried the potential to offer an alternative for fragmented postmodern systems of collage. The ideas of folding and smooth continuous variation were suggesting to blur the edges of abrupt change and introduce smooth transitions between the parts of the whole. Variable curvature as opposed to fragmentation and disjunction. Alongside the rising availability of general-purpose computers and their ability to manipulate differential geometry at ease, the exploration of conceptual folding and resulting continuity became possible. Without computers, some of those complex forms could not have been conceived, designed, or measured. Thus the emergence of the Digital paradigm in architecture was a confluence of these seemingly non-related influences that together opened up new territory for exploration. However, the use of computers also directed a series of fundamental challenges to the discipline. The questions of authorship, originality, vision and mechanical reproduction needed to be re-thought and re-contextualized in the light of the new electronic paradigm. In his essay “Visions Unfolding: Architecture in the Age of Electronic Media” Eisenman argues that the conceptual framework of Deleuzian fold in the context of the electronic paradigm is capable of providing a different architectural model.² He argues that the electronic paradigm and the arrival of media culture challenge the concept of interpretive vision.³ According to Eisenman, ever since the invention of one-point perspective architectural discourse was tailored around the concept of anthropocentric vision manifested in the use of perspective. However, since the computer conceptualizes differently it offers a possibility for an alternative mode of architectural thinking. One that does not operate through a vision in its traditional sense (Figure Below).

Alteka Office Building, Tokyo, 1991; Folding diagrams and plans. Courtesy of Eisenman Architects.

Eisenman’s early steps into this undiscovered territory were merely embryotic attempts to utilize the Deleuzian conceptual philosophy and examine what changes the electronic paradigm might introduce to the field of architecture.⁴ This exploration continued with the preceding generations of architects and resulted in a formalized design methods that attempt to utilize the specificities of digital paradigm in architecture.

Greg Lynn & Stan Allen

In the proceeding decades, some of Eisenman’s abstract and conceptual ideas were moulded into more formalized design methods by Greg Lynn. In his essay “Architectural Curvilinearity The Folded, The Pliant And The Supple” Lynn attempted to introduce an alternative to postmodern collage-based design approaches through the logic of folds and introduction of smoothness.⁵ For Lynn, the conflict and contradiction of postmodern architects were the primary response to gradually raising awareness of the complexity and diversity of architectural context. Lynn’s resolution for the inherent contradictions of a collage was to use sequences of smooth transformation that would allow integrating diverse fragments within a continuous and heterogeneous whole. Lynn believes that the logic of smooth transformation is capable of accommodating and integrating differences within continuous and diverse systems without compromising the coherence of the system as a whole.⁶ Contextual conflicts are not violently clashed together but rather are smoothly folded into architectural form while maintaining their individual identities.⁷ This folding results in formal deformations that are made possible due to the flexibility of topographical geometry in response to external events. They result from the logic that seeks to internalize contextual forces. These deformations fold the outside with the inside and the context with the form of architectural artifact. A similar understanding of the relationships between inside and outside can be observed in Deleuze’s work:

The outside is not a fixed limit but a moving matter animated by peristaltic movements, folds and foldings together make up an inside: they are not something other than outside, but precisely the inside of the outside.⁸

Lynn highlights that traditionally in the process of architectural design the rich network of contextual forces was commonly disregarded. This debate between understanding the virtual space as an equilibrium state system as opposed to the dynamic field of force flows can be traced back to Descartes and Leibniz and to their views on the nature of gravity. Descartes reduced elements of larger dynamic systems and isolated them to extract steady-state equations. While Leibniz examined the parts within the contextual field of the whole dynamic system. Thus Lynn concludes that: “This shift from passive space of static coordinates to an active space of interactions implies a move from autonomous purity to contextual specificity.” ⁹ This approach has been actively employed in other disciplines where the understanding of the design space as an active environment is an integral part of the design process. Naval engineering is one example where the form of the ship hull is shaped through the interaction between the envelope and active context. ¹⁰

This kind of active understanding of the environment is what constitutes the creation of “Animate Form.” Animate form incorporates a multiplicity of influences acting upon architectural form into a single continuous surface. If described as vectorial fields, the collective force of these contextual fields can morph the forms immersed within it. Since animate form by definition is a vector-based topological entity, it can systematically incorporate time motion and force into its shape in form of inflections.¹¹ The same underlying idea was used by D’Arcy Thompson in his theory of transformations where the contextual forces acting upon different species were notated with a curving geometric coordinate frame (Figure Below).

Study of transformation of various crab carapaces through the deformation of a flexible grid. From D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1942), 1057.

From this point of view, the shape of the animate form becomes an information carrier that stores currents of forces acting upon it. To a certain extent, this idea is not novel to the discipline. Even Camilo Sitte showed that the location and shape of important urban monuments were influenced by the traffic flows within the plazas. However, what has changed since antiquity is the complexity of contextual forces that act within the environment of the city. Lynn’s description of form added elastic and malleable dimension to the understanding of form establishing a formalized system where the relationships between contextual field and architectural artifact can be described as an interaction of vectors and fields. Lynn writes:

Issues of force, motion and time, which have been perennially eluded architectural description due to their “vague essence,” can now be experimented with by supplanting the traditional tools of exactitude and stasis with tools of gradient, flexible envelopes, temporal flows, and forces. ¹²

Thereby, these properties of the design environment and their impact on forms can be expressed as numerical data and become parametrized equations targeted at resolving specific design situations. Lynn’s primary concern with his work was to explore the possibility of creating an architectural model where particularities of context are already “plied” in.¹³ Additionally, Lynn’s view on relationships of context as a field and form as a smooth morphable entity submerged in that field blurred the edges of the traditional figure/ground diagram. As a result of enfolding context, this blurring eventually formed into the idea of dynamic landscapes where the deformations of ground produce figurative slopes.¹⁴ The edge separating the figure from the ground started to be viewed as a line of a conceptual fold. The idea of the fold gave the traditional idea of the edge a dimension. The figure was no longer seen as a dialectical opposite of the ground, but rather it was the foldings of ground that produced figures. What can be seen in Lynn’s idea of dynamic landscapes is the attempt to bypass the figure/ground dialectics and render them as folded continuities. However, in his work, the subtle distinction between the two always persist.

Meanwhile Stan Allen in the essay “Field Conditions” develops this idea further to its logical conclusion. Allen’s definition of figure implies a form of more dynamic relationships between figure and ground where figure emerges as an effect in the fluctuations of the ground (Figure below).

Stan Allen, Field Conditions. From: The Digital Turn in Architecture 1990–2010, ed. Mario Carpo (Chichester: Wiley, 2013), 70.

Allen argues that historically spaces were perceived as fixed frozen geometrical patterns; however, the rise of the complexity of living environment requires more fluid and self-organizing spatial systems similar to flocks, swarms or herds.¹⁵ The behaviour of these fields is determined by the internal relationships of parts. From this point of view figure within the field is no longer defined as a rigid object read against the static ground but rather as an emergent effect resulting from foldings and intensifications of the dynamic ground. Local relationships between constituent parts generate large open-ended dynamic networks. In contrast to traditional compositional axes, fields do not create hierarchical relationships between the parts of the whole; the larger organization is generated as a byproduct of locally defined non-hierarchical relationships. Fields are morphed by matrixes of internal and external forces that govern moments of intensification or relaxation. They consist of functions, vectors, and speeds. Furthermore, the clash of two fields does not produce contradictions that are present in systems of collage, due to locally defined organizational principles multiple fields can seamlessly merge and form a new dynamic whole. Fields are aggregates of interconnected particles characterized by local bonds where the overall behaviour and shape of the whole are highly fluid.

The comparison between Chess and Go board games made by Deleuze and Guattari in “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia” illustrates the changes that the understanding of figure/ground relationships has undergone.

Let us take chess and Go, from the standpoint of game pieces, the relations between the pieces and the space involved … Chess pieces are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements, situations, and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop … Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function: “It” makes a move. “It” could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant. Go pieces are elements of a nonsubjectified machine assemblage with no intrinsic properties, only situational ones.¹⁶

The understanding of figure/ground went from the rigid model of Chess to the field resembling the model of Go. The figures in the studies of Camillo Sitte were rigidly defined “chess” figures with rules of traditional composition embedded in their physical form. While the physical context was understood in binary black and white terms of chessboard either solid or void. Meanwhile, the agents of fields operate in a logic similar to Go. The array of generative units forming a field (grid) territory with figures emerging from their locally defined relationships. In other words figure and ground started to be conceptualized not as dialectical opposites defined by their boundaries but rather as interacting fields with blurred frontiers.

About the Author

I am an architectural researcher/Ph.D. Candidate at Aalto University.
You can connect with me on LinkedIn and Facebook.


[1]: Greg Lynn, Folding in Architecture (New Jersey: Willey, 1993), 14.

[2]: Mario Carpo, The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992–2012 (Chichester: Wiley, 2012), 18–20.

[3]: Mario Carpo, The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992–2012 (Chichester: Wiley, 2012), 16.

[4]: Variety of philosophical and mathematical concepts used by architects at the time were actively adapted to the field of architecture; however, these adaptations did not necessarily correspond to their original meaning in the source discipline. Many of these concepts were subjected to substantial authorial interpretations, and this flexible and interchangeable use of terms caused a great deal of confusion in interdisciplinary dialogue. It is beyond the scope of this thesis to attempt to clarify these differences; however it is important to acknowledge their existence.

[5]: Greg Lynn, The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992–2012, ed. Mario Carpo, (Chichester: Wiley, 2012), 29.

[6]: Greg Lynn, The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992–2012, ed. Mario Carpo, (Chichester: Wiley, 2012), 30.

[7]: Greg Lynn, The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992–2012, ed. Mario Carpo, (Chichester: Wiley, 2012), 34.

[8]: Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 96–97.

[9]: Greg Lynn, Animate Form (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 15.

[10]: Greg Lynn, Animate Form (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 10.

[11]: Greg Lynn, Animate Form (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 17.

[12]: Greg Lynn, Animate Form (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 17.

[13]: Mario Carpo, The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992–2012 (Chichester: Wiley, 2012), 43.

[14]: Greg Lynn, Animate Form (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 29–30.

[15]: Stan Allen, Points and Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999),65.

[16]: Gilles, Deleuze, Felix, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 352–353.

Researcher and Ph.D. Candidate at Aalto University. My research interests include Architecture, Mathematics, Geometry, Information Theory, and Computer Science

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