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Exploring Freedom

and how the tools of today affect future design

My passion for creation has a rather addictive nature. As a kid I spent many hours with just a pencil and a piece of paper. In those days when we visited friends of my parents or family and there was no one to play with I happily devoted my time to drawing or sketching whatever else came to mind. At a dining table or a quiet corner of a room my own world emerged in which I was perfectly at ease. The state I was in during the process of creation can best be described as non rational or intuitive. I was never aware of time or place and I felt free in many ways. Ideas kept coming and going in a continuous process. For me this was an opportunity to relax from what the outer world was presenting to me, an opportunity to reboot. To let the continuous flow of thoughts that runs through me evolve freely. I was free to choose whatever subject I wanted to draw, how I wanted to draw it and how much time I would spend on it. It was all freehand. It was just me in my world.

Most of what I drew had natural organic forms. I had a predilection for old trees and I was fascinated by how these trees testify of a long life and continuous exposure to natural conditions. How they are rooted. How they slowly twist upwards developing from a sturdy trunk into a vast tissue of fine, thin twigs much like the arteries and veins of the human body. It was more than fun to start a line at the root and let it flow and wiggle until it finally ended at the tip of a small branch. As if I was following with my hand the sap the tree uses to nurture each leaf. Flowing forms in flowing movements. Just the pencil, the paper, my hand and me.

Rulers and triangles

After high school I had a hard time deciding what to do. I remembered watching my dad make drawings and scale models of the houses he worked on for his boss, a local architect and it gradually occurred to me that I had an interest in technical issues and still loved to make drawings. I also remembered my fascination for my dad’s work. So I got matriculated at a polytechnical institute to become a building expert. I soon found out it was the right choice.

It was in the early 1980‘s that we learned to work on a drawing table with rulers and triangles. Since most buildings and constructions were made with simple geometric forms my world slowly shifted from an organic to a more orthogonal one. I still had a lot to learn about materials, constructions and engineering.

But the way lines were drawn on a drawing board with a pencil or an ink pen with special attention, pressure to the beginning and end of each line brought me back in my intuitive state. After becoming a building expert I worked at several architectural companies on all sorts of different projects varying from luxurious residential jobs to social housing and to offices, schools and shops and everything in between. The first years all my attention was focused on the technical aspects of these buildings. After all I was a building expert and not an architect. It was my job to make technically possible what was designed by others. I loved the work I was doing.

If I had a hard time to figure out how a certain detail could be made by carpenters and others I made three dimensional sketches to visualise the problem for myself and work it out. I learned about costs, about efficient structures, about energy and installations, about the actual building process, about how to negotiate with a contractor and how to apply for a building permit. I also learned how architects do their job. While becoming an experienced building expert over time my focus slowly shifted to what these architects and many others were designing. It occurred to me that most of their work can be drawn with rulers and triangles.

Digital drawing

It was in the late 1980’s when I first learned to work with computers. Computed aided design, CAD in short, was introduced in the company I worked for. Although we were looking at 13” black screens on which we drew cyan, magenta and yellow lines I was fascinated by the possibilities that presented themselves with these computers. In terms of production and precision of new drawings and of the adjustment of older ones I considered this to be a giant leap forward. During the years to come however I came to realise that it is hard to oversee what you are doing with a small scale screen and hard colours that have no relation to thickness of lines which can make a handmade drawing so attractive and understandable. Nor to the reality the lines are supposed to represent.

Drawings had become almost mechanical, cold, machine generated products. Nothing authentic or artistic, nothing special. But most of all, my slowly evolving focus towards architecture, on what feelings a building evokes, what atmosphere it breathes was not particularly helped by this new way of drawing. Besides, from the palette of tools of the applications we used that also included ovals, non regular poly-lines and bezier curves we only used straight or angled lines and some circles. Any sensitivity that was involved in the process of creation was focused directly on the graphic two dimensional representation of elevations. It was clearly just the beginning of a new era. For computers and for me.

The 3-dimensional world

I first met François Verhoeven, my partner at Fillié Verhoeven, as a classmate at the polytechnical institute. He called me in 1992, four years after his graduation as architect at the Delft University to become his partner in the company he founded. What struck me most at that time was that, apart from his inventive talent to design interesting concepts and buildings, he already was an experienced, state of the art three dimensional modeller and photorealistic visualizer. We both saw the need to develop and work out building designs by making 3D computer models and rendering them in perspective views with material textures, colours and all sorts of lighting conditions, both artificial and natural.

These spatial explorations allowed for a much more sensitive and thorough approach towards the development of a building in the early stages of a design. However, it was in the age of the floppy disks. With computers that we now consider to be extremely slow. One image would take three days and nights to be rendered. And computer modelling was also taking huge amounts of time because the only real 3D-tool was extrusion which allowed for prismatic forms exclusively. So modelling as a design tool was far from being an easy and obvious way to work out an idea. Nevertheless we persisted and 3D is still our way to go.

In the mean time so much has changed. Today we have large screens and very fast computers. The applications we use have developed into tools with which in a three dimensional virtual world you can model, sculpt, paint and visualise in two dimensional photographic images or movies whatever you want to show other people. Like a real photographer you can pick your camera, set the exposure and ISO values and focus it with depth of field and motion blur if needed. You can even create stereoscopic images that suggest 3D depth. You can add lights to your scene in different colours, with different character or even with a certain fall off. You can play with light, the source of everything.

An era of endless possibilities

We are living in a thrilling era with unimaginable potency. At this moment everything I design is modeled and visualised with a computer as if it really exists. As long as it stays in my computer there is no limit whatsoever to what I am able to make. Not in style or fashion, not in form, not in material, not in time, not it volume, not in budget, not legally. Any shape I can think of I can model. Even better, because it works so natural I can model shapes I can not even imagine or visualise beforehand in my mind. Any material I want to apply is available or can be made completely with wear and tear, scratches, dirt. Any material property can be applied, adjusted or tweaked, whether the material shines, reflects light, is rough or smooth, has a pattern, is transparent or has a subsurface transparency like soap or candles.

Any light situation whether it is a cloudy morning, a sunny sunset or a studio setting can be used. Because during the development of a shape, an object or a building I get into my intuitive state of mind again opportunities and possibilities guide me towards new ideas and designs and I am often surprised by what emerges on my screen. Shapes grow and develop during the process. Ideas keep flowing and generating new ideas in a limitless continuum. This allows me to play freely.

Because what I design in my computer does not have to be made for real to be examined and therefore is almost costless, because no one imposes wishes, personal taste or legal restrictions upon me I feel totally free. These new opportunities leave so much room to explore that the width of freedom I have in this world exceeds my comprehension.

You can easily get lost. Lost in endless possibilities. In a situation in which the objects or buildings you design do not have a clear familiarity, in which they seem to have been created by different hands or persons, in which you are being judged for lacking a recognisable handwriting. But I like that situation personally. It is the essence of exploration, of design, of research and development.

It is exciting to start somewhere not knowing where you will end. Like in my childhood the pencil in my hand that started a line at the root of an old tree and let it flow and wiggle until it finally ended at the tip of a small branch. It lets you discover freely unobstructed areas that you have never seen before. It lets you explore what is beyond all those orthogonal lines and prismatic shapes that have dominated architecture in general for so long. It is essential to retain the liveliness of design and architecture just because it is endless. And it is thrilling and fascinating at the same time. This is why my passion for creation has a rather addictive nature.

So what is in it for the architecture?

Is this situation just good news for me or does it have a wider impact that goes beyond my personal addiction? I can imagine what may result of this new possibilities, of the use of this new extended toolbox, what opportunities lie ahead. Now firstly it may seem that I am opposed to straight lines and cubic volumes. I am certainly not. That is not what this writing is about. It is about new tools that allow us to explore any architecture possible. There are numerous beautiful examples of architecture using various orthogonal shapes. Modern architects have thoroughly explored these forms and are well educated and equipped to design more of this. 99% of all new buildings is still designed this way. But, in a way development or invention of new architecture has stopped here for me.

The majority of innovations of today’s architecture concern technical issues like sustainable building, organisational issues like shifting insights of how to use a particular building ushered in by changes in society or multidiscipline generated design concepts. They have increased the technical, legal, economical and social awareness of modern architects. I welcome that of course . But these necessary innovations do not concern true new architecture in the sense of appearance or ambience. Of course the industries have provided us with new, exciting materials. But a really different look at buildings, a breath of fresh air like for instance l’Art Nouveau and Modernism showed is rare.

There is a small minority of architects who already for a decade or so use different shapes and forms in their designs. They want to explore what world lies beyond the simple geometric patterns we have explored so intensively. Because working with irregular or bent and twisted forms, with surfaces that are curved in more than one direction requires a lot of new study and a three dimensional approach some worked with very sophisticated computer applications while others rely on scale models to examine their work.

Scale models

I think a scale model only works well to give an impression of the volume of a building as a whole. Two dimensional sections and elevations we used to make do not give enough clue in these cases since they disregard the important relation to the volume and to the adjacent elevations. For me a perfect design has a layered quality. The observer should experience a consistent quality no matter at what distance he is observing the building. So the detail should match the overall appearance and all scales that lie in between. It should therefore be studied at the same time the overall form of the building is shaped and all the other subdivisions are developed. If it is not given the same attention the design may result in roughness, in lack of refinement, in lack of consistency.

With the tools of today we can adjust our model on the fly, while designing simultaneously in all scales. We can easily make lots of alternatives without destroying anything, without wasting money. Because we can place our eyes, our camera anywhere we want we can observe our building from a distance and from close by in any possible condition so we can see how our ideas and decisions affect the project. We can walk through our non existing building to examine it from the inside outwards and the other way around. We can apply all the materials we want and change them almost instantly if need arises. The process of designing becomes much more efficient as the many choices that have to be made about material, color, texture and dimensions can be made in an early stage of the process. No surprises anymore.

So now we have readily available for all architects a non destructive, relatively low-cost but very fast and powerful set of tools to study a design, a building. Tools that can assist us in generating an outcome that is defined before any serious investment is being made. Because of the ease of changing shape, materials and conditions we can now speed up our learning curve and our development process of new unexplored forms without experimenting with our commissioners money. We may wash away any objections our clients may have towards possibly unfamiliar architecture by showing them exactly what their future building is going to be like and by letting them experience themselves beforehand the vividness, warmth, poetry or whatever other property we want to give their project. We can discover a new language that may reaffirm architecture as the art is really is.

Old recipes or new architecture?

Is it really necessary to reinvent the art of architecture? To me there are two versions of architecture. One that uses fashionable features and forms to produce buildings in an industrial way. It is more or less following what the market apparently wants. It can continue to do so until the market changes which it will cause it to change as well. It generates responsible, sound designs that appeal to a majority of people because they bear a great deal of familiarity both in organisation as in expression. This version has produced a large volume of modern, eco-friendly, well built, historically and technically correct buildings that are comfortable and are considered to be a good investment. To me they are lulling me to sleep at the same time, knowing there is another architecture as well.

The other version of architecture deals with the promise of a better world. It dreams of astonishment, excitement and delight. Its designs search with full engagement for means to interact with people in a new different way, for the artful way that reveals timeless quality. For what lies beyond the visible horizon: the unseen and not yet known. For what people will appreciate in the future.

At this moment I feel there is an imbalance between the two versions in favour of the first industrial version of architecture. Fortunately the new tools allow us to explore the freedom that is given us to research and develop the second version of architecture without any restraints or restrictions. If we train our students to use the new design tools that are available too, to explore this whole new universe and to express their sensitivity, sensuality and personality I am sure we will have new buildings that radiate what they will have put in: their finest tool: passion.

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