What is Algorithmic Design ?


Cells contain massive amounts of information. If we stretch the total DNA in our bodies it will be about 16 to 32 billion kilometers. Now, that is a lot of code.

We cannot pack in more information than that. If we were to include the exact location and dimensions and geometric details of the circulatory system for example, as we would do in a CAD file, it would require more than trillion kilometers of code. Hence, nature constructs such designs with code. This is beautifully explained by Prof.Robert Sapolsky’s in his Stanford lecture.

Why use Algorithms ?

Algorithmic code is good for creating very complex geometries with small amounts of data. It works very well with the way nature constructs using cellular components. The fractal (or self similar) nature that you see in trees and leaf veins and arteries is due to this. But the code here is embedded in the cell itself and cells organize themselves to create complex forms based on of relatively simple code.

Algorithmic forms

These are what algorithmic forms look like. Captured by Benjamin Wohlbrecht.

I think you can observe the repetitiveness arising from the use of the same code. The important aspect of this, is that this repetitiveness is part of the build process operating at a cellular level and not at a blue print level.

The Miss-Connection

The bulk of the Architectural mathematical theory was formed in pre-modern days, well before the geometric basis of nature was understood. A good part of current algorithmic architectural philosophy misleadingly ties it to this ancient tradition. More recently, even into calculus; exemplified here by Greg Lyyn

A critical comment on the TED Video :

“Sadly when architects don’t really understand space they resort to an intelligence from another medium or concept. When you look at Greg Lynn’s examples ask yourself “was calculus really necessary?” There have been better aesthetic and functional designs without calculus. Higher thinking evolves to facilitate higher outcomes, not to assist the mindless in pushing garbage out into the world.”

Is there use for algorithmic design ?

I believe the answer is yes, especially for creating interesting surface patterns. Researchers such as Dr.John McCormack are exploring these possibilities – of creating cell based forms. But these methods are not ready yet for architectural form creation. Nature uses very sophisticated bag of tricks to create complex organs. It orchestrates cellular build processes in complex ways that are currently beyond the reach of simple algorithms. An additional layer of complexity seems to be built on top of simple algorithms, to give us our organs and our brains capable of contemplating its own complexities. This stuff is beyond the reach of simple algorithms. It is a very different game. But for breaking up surfaces in interesting ways algorithmic methods are hard to beat.

We are about to witness a new explosion of algorithmic form

Not in architecture but in 3D printed products. 3D printing is ideally suited for algorithmic form; because in 3D printing complexity comes for free – whereas in architecture complexity comes with a cost. Algorithmic form can be visually interesting and engaging – especially to our eyes drenched in Euclidian forms and to our brains-washed to believe in its virtues. Complexity that rivals nature can now be created and manufactured. 3D printed Jewellery will soon be flaunting its virtues.

N-e-r-v-o-u-s System is one among the companies that is developing this prospect fairly well. 3D printing will continue to have severe limitations, as ‘anything’ cannot be printed as claimed. The material and manufacturing limitations are very much at play. Algorithmic design is perfect for this, because as in nature, there is no design involved – only manufacturing. In algorithmic design, limits can easily be set – viability can be written in. Algorithmic design is perfect for 3D printing as it can lay matters particle by particle.

Does algorithmic design have a future in architecture?

Of course yes, but, only for surface patterning as of now: We are yet to figure out how the next layer of complexity can give birth to building rooms, ventilation, views and visual delight. Till that time, we should stop making glorious connections to old world mathematics. A new world of form is now being born out of a new world of mathematical and biological understanding. We are yet to come to terms with it.


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