(via Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond blog)

Recently, Bruce Sterling featured Voxopolis (below) on his blog. The project extends Conway’s Game of Life into the 3rd dimension in order to evolve a city design. It is one of six presented in the Helvepolis – Urban Design in Vitro! exhibition, showcasing the work of students at ETH in Zurick, studying Masters of Architectural Studies in Computer Aided Architectural Design:

voxopolis from Dino Rossi on Vimeo.

The ETH Masters program looks at “the use of current information technologies as an augmentation of concepts of architecture. [Exploring] new techniques and methods for design that incorporate scripting and programming languages.” As my interest in the use of computer technology in architecture lie in the areas of understanding inhabitants’ spatial practices to inform design, better engineering, and architectural modeling, I am generally quite cynical towards CAAD projects that look cool, but don’t serve actual human bodies. I have given some personal commentary to a few of the CAAD projects. I’d be curious to hear your views.



As pointed out, the resulting city looks “kind of weird and implausible”, but beyond looks this project upsets me in it’s approach to architecture. Where is the human body in the simulation? The scales and sizes of the blocks are pre-defined, and there is no interaction between the game rules and the rules of human habitation and scale.

The evolution does not rely on any sort of heuristics (guides to improvement), apart from the abstract rules of the Game of Life, so the evolution is purely a result of these. Also, it looks likely that the street configuration that the game is run on has been set up initially, according to the experimenter’s whim.


Attractive City

AttractiveCity – an interactive City generator from stefanie sixt on Vimeo.

It’s totally abstracted from the experience of being in the city. A city can look fantastic from 10,000 ft above, but how does that help peoples street-level lives?



Himmelstadt-CAAD ETH from Hua Hao on Vimeo.

Another evolutionary system. This one involves some interaction with a user, who seems to select which designs will survive on the basis of looks. It is a funny approach to an evolutionary system, when you can prune off genes to make it look more like a conventional city and less like an orgy of algae. In all of these, the heuristics/target properties should be explicitly stated. For me, coming up with something cool looking is not enough.


Sandy City

Processing City – Sandy City (HD version) from mjchen on Vimeo.

I really like this project; they are not trying to throw a magical evolutionary algorithm at the problem, and there is no attempt to pretend the choice of archetypes are god-given.

Also, it is so refreshing to see human-eye-views of the created cities, as the viewer moves realistically through the space. Even more refreshing is the attention to sound design, as an important aspect of the architectural experience.


About Play

The computer isn’t a magic box. Just because the computer does something – something emergent – doesn’t mean that the conditions of emergence will be in any way productive of anything useful.

From (collective) experience, some architects seem to treat the CAD process this way. Imagine having a magic wand that you waved at stuff to transform it into something altogether weird-looking and different. We wouldn’t wave it around willy-nilly and put the resulting blob to use as a building, although admittedly the aesthetics of the thing would be exciting and interesting, and might get you some kudos.

I truly believe that the element of unrestricted play can be extremely, creatively productive in most endeavors, architecture included. I also recognize that these projects can be thought of as playful breaks from traditional design. My concern, however, is the assumption of the equation

something + computers = better something

in any situation.

But please let me know if you disagree; I have colleagues who suggest that a computer-based generation of options, coupled with considered selection, is a good design approach.

Edit: This discussion has been posted on Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond blog as “Generating Cities”, and responded to at “The Authors of Voxopolis speak”. My continued response is in the comments below.