function ¦ program

by Harriet Strachan

A function, according to Robinson, is “an abstract replica of causality” where the same input must result in the same output every time. There can be one or many different inputs that result in the same output, however this cannot be reserved. The same cannot be said about one input giving you many outputs. He uses logic to explain this theory where “If A implies B, and A, then B” but this is not to say that “If A implies B, and B, then A”, that would require inverting the index. Functions return a value. These inverse problems act as a filter or a lens but they do not result in a function but rather a relation, where one single value is mapped to many sets or lists of values. Different software takes data ‘inputs’ and creates certain ‘outputs’ using and analyzing this information. However, they do not experience the results of these output actions.

In Alexander’s text “The Program”, he writes about the process of design, how designers are faced with a problem, and which also faces independent subsystems of different variables. He believes it’s not possible to replace the designer with mechanically computation decisions. Design requires more than an output made from a body of data. However, the designer is limited to solving these problems himself. He creates three schemes of the designer’s role in the process of design, which differentiate form (design artifact) and context (environment). The unselfconscious situation, the designer acts as the agent in the process and can manipulate the design in the case of any misfits. The selfconscious scheme is different to the later, where the designer engages in the process, iterating between ideas/drawings/diagrams of the form and context as a mental image. The third scheme seems like a solution to overcome the limitations of the unselfconscious process, by creating a formal picture of what exists in the imagination, resulting in a method (Ralph, 2015). Overall, a problem presents itself with a set of various misfits that need to be avoided when dealing with form and a context. We can refer to this as program, providing directions or instructions to the designer.

In the text “Computer Synthesis”, Cross discusses computer-aided design, the use of the computer in the synthesis stage of design problems and compares this with the ability to actually generate design solutions. Referencing programs, starting in the 1960s, associated with the automation of building design and simulation software, including space-allocation, optimizing floor plans, walking distances, etc. These programs create an interactive dialogue between the machine and its user. Similarly, ASHRAE and DIVA are both simulation software I used in my Architecture studies as a tool to aid in the optimization of building function. The interactive design process can be described in three different stages. The synthesis stage, usually associated with the human designer, is when a subset of variables, guidelines are created and recognized by the designer. The analysis stage, involving a program, is where this set of variables is applied. Finally, the evaluation stage is where the user and the machine iterate back and forth until the result satisfies the specifications and the designer (Encarnação, 1990). It involves the exchange of data between the external environment and the machine/program, creating a feedback loop (Carpo, 2015). However, these building optimization tools, have little impact on the success of the overall design, therefore how can machines understand the task of design? Is architectural design a consequence of the tools we use to make it happen? Does the influence of simulation software take away from the designer’s overall creative expression? During my undergrad, the different software tools would have an influence on student’s design ideas. For example, Revit was better for more boxy buildings, where as Rhino was accommodating for more complex, organic forms. Will designers continue to adjust their work according to the capabilities of the software they are using?

A contemporary sense of program involves “the exploration of digital analysis and synthesis, in the increasing interest in the formal and spatial potential of new materials and structures, and above all in the migration of the exploration of social and cultural forms from the domain of art installation to public architecture” (Vidler, 2003). In his text “Toward a Theory of the Architectural Program”, Vidler is interested in the Archigram Group and their formal strategy and contemporary, digital approach to the architectural program. Dating back to the 1960s, in particular for Banham, program would require a more scientific approach including “aesthetics of perception, human response, technologies of the environment and the like” (Vidler, 2003), incorporating both form and function, not the 20th century modernist perception that ‘form follows function’. For Koolhaas, science doesn’t offer solutions, it offers pre-existing knowledge. Architects do not invent the program, their role is in “identifying its raw material” in its given context and actuality.

Functionality in the design process can involve the computer through computerisation, as a representational tool, and computation, as a tool for discovery and experimentation in the design (Zarei, 2012). Will there be a time where the program is no longer just an aid in the design but rather acts as a tool for exploring what is not already understood? Can programs translate data into a meaningful form? Can the machine tackle the task of design? In that case, who is then considered the designer, the machine or its user? These tools and programs inspire architects to imagine unprecedented solutions. Today, as Mario Carpo states “a meaningful building in the digital age is not just a building that was designed and built using digital tools: it is one that could not have been either designed or built without them” (Carpo, 2015). The relationship between architects and their tools is changing, the boundary between architect and machine is becoming more blurry and our dependence on software is increasing. Patrik Schumacher discusses how, at Zaha Hadid Architects, their use of technology has become as much of a requirement as it is a choice. They develop/tweak software according to what is necessary for the intended design concept (Sisson, 2016). Similarly, the design of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim required the development of a new iteration of a software, CATIA, due to its geometric complexity (Chang, 2015). Grasshopper, the Rhino plug-in, is an example of a program used in Architecture School and many firms. It allows designers to map sets of design relationships graphically and programmatically into an interactive system. Virtual reality is also becoming a popular interactive tool in the process of architectural design. Being able to walk through a space at a one to one scale allows users to understand how the building functions. The connection between machine and human interaction is increasing, but when will come the point where the machine becomes the critical thinker, the designer?

Alexander, C. (1964). The Program. Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 73-84.
Carpo, M. (2013). The digital turn in architecture 1992-2012 (AD reader). Chichester: Wiley. Chang, L. (2015, May 12). The Software Behind Frank Gehry’s Geometrically Complex
Architecture. Retrieved from geometrically/
Cross, N. (2001). Can a machine design? Design Issues, 17(4), 44-50. Cross, N. (1977). Computer Synthesis The Automated Architect, 73-84.
Encarnação, J., Lindner, R., & Schlechtendahl, E. (1990). Computer aided design : Fundamentals and system architectures(Second, rev. and Extended edition. ed., Symbolic computation, computer graphics – systems and applications). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-84054-8
Robinson, D. (2008). Functions and Logic. Software Studies: A Lexicon, 105-7.
Sisson, P. (2016, May 16). Zaha Hadid’s Influence on Engineering in Design. Retrieved from engineering-legacy
Vidler, A. (2003). Toward a Theory of the Architectural Program. 59-74. doi:10.1162/016228703322791025.
Zarei, Y. (2012). The Challenges of Parametric Design in Architecture Today: Mapping the Design Practice. 4-100.


by Amélie Savoie-Saumure

The four texts written about program and function vary in tonality and approach towards their meaning in architecture. The introduction of computers has indisputably revolutionized the way we analyze, work and think about design. Although seen often in a pessimistic way and accompanied by a certain fear towards the future of the profession, the benefits and the evolution have been remarkable, a process of trial and errors in a world on unknown variables and possibilities.

Toward a Theory of the Architectural Program by Anthony Vidler explores the concept of program and its evolution from the 60s until today. More specifically, he analyses Reyner Banham and John Summerson theories of architecture and the effect of technology on the discipline. The shift that occurred by the use of software, transitioning to a scientific methodology on how we tackle design, resulted in a change of the meaning of program. It is being argued that program worked hand in hand with function, where architecture used to be about functionalism and the purpose and use of space. Nowadays, architecture has become a spectacle, a tool to convey a symbol or an emblem as a whole rather than being centered on the occupancy. Although quite the generalization, it is impossible to not acknowledge this tendency when looking at contemporary projects like the Bird’s Nest in Beijing by Herzog & de Meuron, where architecture becomes iconic to a city, bringing tourism and international fascination. With the freedom that technology brings to the field comes many explorations on the way we express through images and other mediums in order to clarify the tormented relationship between the architect and technology. The comparison of Archigram and Rem Koolhaas is particularly interesting by their own reflections on how technology has been and will contribute to architecture.

Computer synthesis by Cross focuses on the development of architectural software in the 60s and 70s. Although more descriptive approach on the different purpose and performance of each program, there is an overall will of using the computer as a more direct aid in the synthesis stage of design problems. The search for a mathematical value of spaces, a way to quantify different elements of what is considered a ‘good’ space is a common theme with Vidler’s text. Cross’s examples make us understand a different view on software, where 50 years ago, the computer was seen as a tool to evaluate and spark creativity to the architect. Each software tackled different constraints, whether it is optimization, costs, movement and so on. There was a clear dialogue between the designer and the machine, a constant back and forth of evaluation and modification until satisfaction by the user. We can easily compare this approach to today’s vision of software in architecture, where they are now integrated and an unavoidable part of the architect’s life. They propelled design to limits never achievable otherwise, pushing the boundaries of construction and design, making architecture incredibly faster and structurally complex. They also have a clear imprint on the architecture they help produce. Taking Revit as an example, the software facilitates the construction drawing process and became a must in every major architectural firm. The benefits are countless and simplify in many ways coordination in between disciplines. The major down side comes with the limitations that it has, being a software oriented toward engineering rather than designing, and affects deeply the way we conceive buildings. Instead of relying on software as complementary tools to the architect, we have entered a dangerous era where software shapes the design as much as the architect. In effect, the fear of the autonomous machine like Banham dreaded, the robot architect of the last decades is not quite what has been anticipated. It can definitely have us wonder if it is still a possibility, if we will ever reach a time where the architect is no longer needed.

This phenomenon is argued and decorticated in The Program by Christopher Alexander. Contrary to Banham, he discusses the improbability of the machine taking over. A main component of the design process is invention, which is in his opinion not obtainable by technology. Although surpassing the human in terms of analyzing data and processing information, the human has a limited inventive capacity in that manner; the number of variables is too high and unclear to replace the action of a trained designer. The design process is feasible in three schemes, all of which revolves around this idea of design being based on the architect’s view of a context. There lies the main basis of his hypothesis, where technology is impartial, and consequently cannot answer a given situation with an adequate response. If that is the case, we can ask ourselves if a shift needs to happen in the way we developed software, where it is not developed as an extra hand to the human, but rather as a process solution to the computation of selected variables. It is possible to connect this idea to Rem Kolhaas’ Wired magazine publication, where he described contemporary architecture not by its history or theories, but rather with facts of the world and culture surrounding the architecture. In that sense, technology and this day and age has allowed an opening of the profession, previously being much centered on its own past and concepts, where as now it is incorporating at a conceptual level politically, economically, environmentally and socially of the world it is surrounded by.

Functions and Logic by Robinson, although oriented towards a mathematical logic view of technology, comes to the same conclusion of Alexander’s text. Computers have a unidirectional and linear way of processing information, where a function results to an output or and an action. The capacity of logic, being able to read between the lines, to assimilate information in order to conclude on a problem is unique to humans. This process, although to a certain extend feasible by computers, is described not as a function, but as a relation. Google’s scripting, creation of a matrix and ability to connect words to a result is a new definition of logic, one specifically created for and by computers. There is then an introspection that is necessary to re-evaluate what function and program means nowadays by the use of software in architecture, as technology utterly changed design.

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