Design is a Function of Infinity


When does design end and use begin? Is there a definitive beginning and end to the process of design, and does design concern itself with the solving of problems, that is, working within a specific problem set, defining the end goals and working toward those within a closed system?

No. Obviously not.

Nothing in design is ever straightforward. Design is a function of infinity. It never begins, and it never ends. It exists as a fluid system where ideas come and go, where they are moulded by ideologies and philosophies, in the hope that the present iteration may benefit society in some way.

As a function of infinity, there is no definitive solution that will solve all problems, or that will please everyone. And there is no designed solution that will be perfect, by the very fact that design is a human construct, and we are a notoriously imperfect species. Thus lies one of the age-old challenges of any design discipline: how can value be attached to something that is so vague, to a service that has no concrete end to it? The key would, most likely, be in attaching value to the process, that is, educating clients and endusers on the value in collaboration, in the techniques and tools required to sculpt a formless idea into the tangible object that exists in the material world.

And at the other end of the spectrum, of course, is that feeling every designer has: the endless possibilities of a blank page, akin to the infinity of our Universe. Everything is possible, with the only constraint being the designer’s imagination (itself a function of infinity).

Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity—distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.

–Douglas Adams


Digital and Analog: A Tale of Two Mediums

I watched Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, recently. The big hype about this picture – apart from it being a Tarantino western, a surefire classic if ever there was one – is that he chose to film it in Ultra Panavision 70. This is a format that hasn’t been used in mainstream cinema since the 60s. In fact, Hatful Eight was filmed with the same lens used in classics like Ben Hur.

Tarantino is one of the most prolific proponents of shooting on film. He believes that this traditional method is something that should be preserved, and that it adds an ineffable quality to the cinematic experience that is surely lacking from modern digital cinema.

This argument – film vs. digital – is an age-old debate. It’s not unique to the realm of cinema, in fact. As a young architect, I have already faced this debate, first encountering it in my undergraduate years. Architecture is a field that is constantly facing the challenges of technological progress. On either end of the spectrum (construction and design) technological development poses fundamental issues that deeply affect the very core of the practice.

The argument for an analog approach to creativity is that it brings one closer to the work. There is no denying that the connection between brain and hand is inextricably strong. So yes, when introducing a new stream of knowledge (in this case, the many aspects of architectural education) beginning with analog methods is critical. Most importantly, it gives the student a better sense of proportion, geometry and scale. These are aspects that are oft distorted if one were to begin in a virtual sphere.

However, the paradox ensues when we face the fact that most architectural students are educated by teachers who were themselves taught in the older craft of analog production. This method, when one gets to the higher level, is anachronistic in a highly digital world. Digitally produced work is thus frowned upon; a seemingly easy-way-out approach to the creation of architecture. Yet in the “real world”, a digital production environment is critical to the bottom line – to staying relevant in a fast-paced and rapidly developing economy.

Here’s the thing: the virtual world is just another type of canvas. In many cases, digital form making brings forth accelerated creativity as complex geometries are made possible. Proponents of the analog method will argue that digital work lacks the je ne sais qua of hand-produced work. I would rebut by saying that digital work can be just as expressive as its analog counterparts – it all comes down to the practitioner, to how the creator wields the tools available to him.

At the end of watching Hateful Eight, it didn’t really matter to me that the movie was filmed in the Ultra Panavision 70 format. Yes, it looked beautiful. And the cinematography accented an already entertaining and gripping story. But what mattered most was the experience: I cared less for how it was made, and more about how entertained I was – the final goal of any cinema. Likewise, it matters not how the piece of architecture was conceptualised. What matters is that it conveys the right information, it describes the idea in the best way possible, and it ultimately enriches the viewer or occupant.

The Nature of Design

Perhaps it is because design encompasses such a wide range of economic tiers — from the high-end ultra luxury to low-cost housing and solutions for disaster relief efforts —that we tend to become confused about its purpose. Thus we tend to fixate on its nature as an entity aligned with exclusivity, where it has an aura that is seemingly detached from the plight of the everyday. This is its aesthetic conception – its surface value – something that is far easier and neater to understand than the complex beast that it really is.

It is unfortunate that our society sometimes perceives the vocation as such, because design is such an intrinsic part of what makes us human. It’s an inherent part of our evolutionary story; it’s a validation of our ability to have adapted as a species that has emerged triumphant from every challenge nature has thrown at us. In essence, design has played a significant role in getting us to where we are today: a highly evolved, intelligent, dominant species capable of astonishing feats. We were able to overcome these challenges through innovation: through using our intellect to design solutions, to streamline mundane tasks and thus free our minds to begin contemplating the deeper issues that began presenting themselves, and thus continuing this cycle of development. Design has brought us mobile phones, bridges, cities that claw at the skies, and eyes that see into the dawn of time.

For me, design isn’t about what something looks like. Aesthetics form such a tiny part of the entire story. Design is about how something works. It’s about how a multitude of pieces have been intricately woven together to form a coherent whole. It’s about the collation and understanding of seemingly disparate ideas, of making unconventional connections and sifting through a multitude of thoughts to retrieve those tiny fragments that are the true gems, the ones that will assemble to provide a meaningful solution. It’s a messy, daunting, multifaceted pursuit. It’s much, much more than just the skin of an object.

The Tomb and the Monument

“Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.”

– Adolf Loos, architectural theorist

There is an elegant truth to this statement. Whilst I might argue that all built structures have architecture in their DNA – that architecture is an inclusive aspect of society rather than something relegated to the realm of the privileged – architecture is also something that carries a gravitas with it. It forms a sociocultural marker in time; it is a manifestation of this very abstract of human comprehensions that forms an indelible mark on our landscapes and cityscapes.

Monuments are an important part of our collective architectural language. More than anything, they serve as these markers in time: as iconic images that remind us of particular periods in our history. Parts of that history may be good and parts of it may be bad, but it is history and as such serves an incredibly intricate and vital purpose of the human experience. History teaches us: it teaches us how to live, it teaches us about the mistakes made by human beings driven by passionate purpose and ideology, the great triumphs of mankind and how they were achieved. But above all else, it equips us with the cognitive skill set requisite in making complex decisions as we chart a brighter future for our society.

There are far greater issues at hand that plague society than the idea of mere destruction of landmarks. Yes, the argument for destruction in order to create something new out of that debris is a rather romantic and thus enticing notion, especially for someone of a creative inclination. But selectively destroying portions of history in order to create a tailored version of it siphons-off valuable intellectual energy that could be employed to better effect in actually doing positive work that can uplift our existing society.

The eradication of these edifices is therefore counterproductive to building a stronger, intellectually healthier society. Instead, it diminishes all that was done to achieve the present victories. We cannot be selective when it comes to something like history. History, time… these are entities far greater than any single human being. All we can do as citizens keen on architecting a better society is to learn from them, both the good and the bad, to internalise those lessons, to properly comprehend them, and then begin to formulate our blueprints for the future.

Equipment Doesn’t Define Creativity

There’s this wonderful saying that perfectly captures my thoughts on this topic. Essentially, what I believe, after going through three years of intensive design instruction in my undergraduate architecture degree, and throughout my various design-oriented ventures for personal work and for SKKSA, is that equipment does not dictate creativity. Indeed, it’s not what you use, but how you use it. This is where the magic happens; this is the act of art, where the depth of the creative act becomes apparent at the hand of the craftsman.

So before I delve deeper into this topic, here’s the gist of this idea: you wouldn’t compliment a chef’s kitchen utensils if you enjoyed his meal; you would commend his skills at bringing forth a delightful gastronomic experience. Similarly, one shouldn’t say “wow, that’s a great photo. You must have an amazing camera.” Because, like the chef and his delicious meal, a beautiful photograph is the creative proof of the photographer’s skillset: of understanding light, composition, technical dexterity and that unique aspect of the creative process that transcends mere product and renders a piece “art” – judgement and intuition.

One could have the most expensive creative equipment at their disposal, but without the knowledge of how to drive these tools, without intuition and passion and a deeper, rooted understanding of the art form – whether it’s a literary work, a piece of art, a photograph or the design of a building – the resultant work would be mundane, lacking a sense of meaning and connectedness to humanity, to society, and thus considered a positive contribution to the world.

All too often, in our consumeristic mindset, driven by the fast-paced nature of technology, society and an ever-increasing pressure to constantly produce for insatiable, all-consuming minds, we forget the magic that can arise when we transcend focus on equipment and rather consider the actual act of creativity. The act of creation, of making something out of nothing, is a rather sacred thing. To render something from the mind into reality is a cornerstone of mankind’s evolution, of our ascent from mere hunter-gatherers purely concerned with survival, into creators and thinkers with the potential to build entire cities and venture forth into the stars.

So these platform debates and mock-wars over which brand or product, or tool is better, are rather meaningless in the grander scheme. Whether you’re Windows or Mac, analogue or digital, it’s the way you use what you have to create that determines your prowess. In the end, not many will care how you created it; it’s the end product that matters to the large portion of society. But it’s up to us, as the creators, to imbue in our work meaning, and a rootedness to culture, society, history – to the precedents that provide richness and add dimension – because these are the elements that will ensure longevity in the final product. These, and not what was used to create them, will immortalise our names and ensure our creations add value to our fellow humans.

Infographic: “Movin’ on Up” – The World’s Tallest Buildings

A few months ago I wrote about my travels to Dubai, and my thoughts on the architecture of that multifaceted and intriguing city.

This post is a visual follow-up to that, focussing on the engineering and design of a typological resurgence in the built environment: skyscrapers. I was approached by a reader of Pixelated Thinking with this compelling infographic that succinctly captures how tall buildings are becoming an important part in our society, especially as cities become more dense, and urbanisation becomes a force to be reckoned with.

Dubai, of course, leads the pack in most cases. That city of superlatives boasts most of the world’s tallest buildings, and there’s still many more being planned and constructed in that Emirate. Just recently, SOM announced their latest tower, the 90˚ twisted tower that resembles Santiago Calatrava’s “Turning Torso” design, Cayan Tower (previously Infinity Tower), now the world’s tallest twisted tower.

I recommend you follow the link on this infographic to find out some more interesting facts about the world of tall buildings.

Movin' On Up
Source: Best Online Engineering Degree

An Essay on Dubai

In mid-January I was fortunate to travel to Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. Travelling with an eye being trained in the professions of the built environment means that it’s virtually impossible not to notice the more intricate things that occur in cities. And as such, I have noticed things in both Kuala Lumpur and Dubai that have piqued my interest, spawned ideas and initiated further inquiry into why these cities have been designed the way they are, and how this is influencing, and is influenced by, the social strata inhabiting these magnificent metropolises. In particular, this piece will be concerning itself with Dubai.

Dubai has fascinated me for some time. I witnessed its rise over the years, both from transit stop-overs and through the news. In many ways, it represents a microcosm of today’s society: an urbanised, unremitting devotion to building things, and using building as a means of communicating power. It’s not something new to our societies; many empires, kingdoms and states have used infrastructure to convey prowess. But I don’t think many have done so on the scale that Dubai is doing today.

Continue reading “An Essay on Dubai”