Sophisticated computer design has renewed the potential for a marriage of mathematics and architecture. But, says Kathryn Findlay, we should all be aware of the pitfalls.
The New Mathematics of Architecture
Jane Burry and Mark Burry
Thames & Hudson, 272pp, £20
In his book Mental Capitalism (2005), the architect and computational sage Georg Franck writes: ‘Everything smacks of publicity. Wherever we look, there are logos, whatever the event, we are reminded of sponsors. We are witnessing an invasion of brands. Before our eyes, cities and landscapes mutate into advertising media. Publicity settles like mildew on everything open to public view’.
Within today’s architectural culture, and underlying Jane Burry and Mark Burry’s book, The New Mathematics of Architecture, newly published in paperback, we are confronted by a wave of buildings that crave attention. Incredible pressure is placed on architects and architectural students to design buildings that get noticed. Even before assessing the site, before examining the brief, there is an assumption that a landmark should result. With particular relevance this summer, Burry notes that ‘Olympic buildings are slaves to the camera’.
Cities can fall into the same trap. When Dundee made a pitch to the Victoria & Albert Museum to locate a satellite in the city (I was involved with the intitial bid), I was taken aback to see Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Photoshopped onto the shores of the Tay for the presentation. Too often it’s forgotten that there is a need for a spectrum that embraces the fortissimo and the sotto voce – loud and quiet. Otherwise all we get is a meaningless cacophony of noise.
In a sense, The Mathematics of Architecture had to be written, for it provides a valuable summary of where we are in this new landscape. Like it or not, computers provide architects with a box of tricks that offers a whole new spatiality to explore. Judging by the wave of adventurous geometries evident on the walls of architectural schools, this new discipline needs to be given status within the curriculum. The Burrys’ book is a useful start, but it should come with a health warning: use maths wisely and don’t let it run away with you. The glossary supplies explanations of 58 different mathematical methods. To a non-mathematician it’s like a recipe book full of ingredients you have never used before. For fearless architectural experimenters, however, it’s potentially a Pandora’s box.
The New Mathematics illustrates both built and unbuilt projects, selected by category: mathematical surfaces and seriality; chaos; complexity; emergence; packing and tiling; optimisation; topology and datascapes; and multidimensionality. The best projects incorporate the new mathematics seamlessly, the worst are awkward, and shoehorned uncomfortably into a site. Some are as if the architect has produced a fabulous shape and said to the engineer ‘now make it work!’ But others – Foreign Office Architects’ Yokohama International Port Terminal, Foster & Partners’ Beijing International Airport, PTW and Arup’s Water Cube in Beijing – show brilliant understanding.
Architects need time to digest the potential of these new tools, although it is evident that some have already got the hang of them. Abalos & Sentkiewicz, among the most restrained of architects, is using a tiled, triangulated structure at Spain’s Logroño station (picture) in which geometry is integrated into the function of the building to create a workable and beautiful space.
Kathryn Findlay is principal of Ushida Findlay Architects who, in 1993, designed the Truss Wall House, one of the first topological buildings. She is delivery architect for the Arcelor Mittal Orbit for Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond at the London Olympics site.
First published in AT229, June 2012