Constraints: mechanistic and imaginary

Mark O’Bryan

I give an example of a kind of key constraint. Not all constraints are the same kind. Some constraints are mechanistic: those driving other things to completion as a kind of mechanistic watch-making. Right? ….components instantiated like the components of a mechanical wrist watch, driven to precision by key constraints.

One might notice other kinds of constraints though that are typical. Sometimes (often) constraints are constraints only because someone imagines them so and says they are, not mechanistically, but as a function of imagination.

Mark O’Bryan, architect and professor at the University of Kentucky College of Design talks about this. I’m showing the start of some of his work here Mark OBryan explains the value to him of his hand sketching, hand drawing, hand painting, hand built models – what these mean to him specifically, why his thinking has to start there, and why he likes the idea that his hand drawings then are used to form a kind of thoughtspace in software in which he can continue to think and work and carry his thoughts further:

“When we talk about the creative process we’re talking about the thematic development of two divergent means of organizing the environment and its objects, the experiential and the technical.”

“When we talk about the creative process we’re talking about psychological forces with the suppositions latent in the physical site, horizontal and vertical, the path of the sun, solid and void, path and arrival, inside and outside and the in-between, etc. In the beginning, the creator “pretends” with lines, volumes and mass. The creator re-examines and re-imagines a “pretend” by placing it in the site at a critical juncture. This act anticipates consolidation (clarification) of the “pretend” by bringing the various activities and parts together into a logical composition (the order of things). This typically means that the building elements are in close proximity and make a useful space adaptable to useful activity. Organizing the structures is a mental process involving complex requirements and technical difficulties, but in the beginning, when things are fluid, these technical problems are also fluid. In the beginning, the designer is concerned with order and existence, human experiences within notions of type and form. In the beginning, the technical means are assumed, where the vision predates the technical realization. For the designer, hand sketches, models and drawings are the means by which these ideas about order are best explored. Because of the suggestive and impressionistic characteristics, sketches are a powerful tool for transforming various parts and visualizing their place and meaning within the actual situation. This brings us head on into the heart and soul of this project, as research combining and aligning hand drawings, in-situ within point clouds made from hand-built models.”

“How can one preserve and expand upon the uses of “the pretend” –beginning sketch models, hand drawings and other visual media long into and throughout the technical development of the design, to the point of instructing those responsible for the designs construction? It is possible now to imagine how these can be embedded within the digital information and inform the various qualities and characteristics of finish product to the point of being noticeable and equivalent (fully integrated technical concept?). Rather than the form dictated by what the computer can produce technically, Use the computer as a tool to produce what the mind is able to imagine through the feedback loop involving creative hand-made models and hand drawings.”

“How can the combination serve as the place within which ideas continue to come to mind, unfold, evolve, grow, and further, also, how can that combination serve as the place within which the design is made intelligible to those who will build it?”

“More on models and drawings made by hand. The drawings made by hand are part research, part setting in place necessary limits and defining conditions. Each iteration of a drawing is a way of seeing the object. Each view is useful by suppressing visual information and observable characteristics of the object so that information content, such as profile contour, can be isolated and therefore refined. This act is important for a designer for many reasons. First it has an affirming effect in one’s mind like declaring “this is amazing”: see this shadow becomes important in this location. I created this in this way and it is important, distinctive and memorable. It is a way of assertion and notation. Here this is beautiful and holds in the memory. This is also a way of imaging, which is part of a way of seeing an instance of a result that in its perception strikes a blow on the senses, as something unexpected in the drawing or model appears to work. The result may even be convincing enough to apply in other situations. This is a tool for discovering design because visual ideas present themselves in the act of superimposition, erasure and transparency. This is experimentation and play with form where the designer immerses in the possibilities and possible visual phenomena related to qualities and characteristics of the thing. After this iterative process from view to view, several complementary relationships present themselves, other unintended themes present.”

“The ability to do this quickly and effectively takes many passes. Making physical models is different thinking than producing digital models. The same is true for drawing. I feel I am inside making by hand. Digital making, I am outside looking in. I can elaborate. One is natural. The innovation here, of a combined and intelligible environment, holds the distinct promise of closing the gap between hand drawings, models, and cad environments. It gives a new way of looking, a new way of thinking, designing that combines the best of prior ways.”

I add at thought… There has been in our industry a tradition of supporting the search for methods of mechanistic totality, almost as a kind of holy grail. The belief is that it would be desirable to encapsulate the totality of a thing as a set of unfolding constraints that if well written enough would reveal everything. And so the search is on and continues. However that search overlooks something that matters.

It overlooks that the human mind has evolved beyond that. One of our best tricks is our ability to operate in an environment where things are incompletely described to us. We can be very effective, without needing to know the script(s) driving the world. You can say, well if we knew all the scripts then we could be MORE effective.

Maybe, or maybe not, and if the mechanistic constraint rules are the whole of your belief, you might be missing something interesting in the mind’s ability to generate ideas and action WITHOUT complete information. There’s an efficiency in this that shouldn’t be missed, or reduced, an immediate pragmatic efficiency, at the same time mysteriously inexplicable.

Anyway, it’s what we do.

Mark O’Bryan

All of these things (these media we use) are for two purposes (closely related). First, to help us think. Second, to help us communicate to others, so they can think.

It’s a thought space.

The meme going around 10 years or more that models will replace drawings should soon end, hopefully. It doesn’t recognize the function of drawing, which Brian Lighthart framed exactly right (recently on linked in ): necessarily narrowing down so you’re not trying to “listen to every conversation around you on a bus.”

There’s another piece of this meme. There’s a belief in a certain kind of modeling (parametric), a belief that computational modeling is paramount, that when we encapsulate the totality of a thing as a set of unfolding constraints well-written enough to reveal everything, then the job is done.

This overlooks not just the practical aspects of thought and communication, but something else and our best trick: the mind’s ability to generate ideas and action WITHOUT complete information. There’s an efficiency in this that shouldn’t be missed, or reduced, an immediate pragmatic efficiency, at the same time mysteriously inexplicable.

We might raise the level of our questions, about how the two methods (sketch and compute) can come together in new ways to help us think and communicate. I’m interested in that question, but without wanting to get bogged down in it. We bring ourselves out of the bog and the muck when we realize the purpose of drawing (to think and communicate), when we sense the possibility of new ways of drawing, and when we see the purpose of modeling and all other spatial information: a place within which we think, talk, and act.

This gets us out of the mud, away from the burden of the idea that a model is a totality of all things and a perfection. Instead we see freedom, not a perfect place, but a messy place with a purpose.

The meaning of the word “drawing” should be more fluid (or actually return to its original meaning); “drawing” includes whatever techniques that effectively bring focus, clarity, instruction, and affirmation to spatial information. We can see myriad possible techniques that will do that. As Brian said, when you are narrowing down from everything to something (using any techniques that do that), that’s what you’re doing: “drawing”, you draw down from the information overload of everything to something specific to which you draw focus and bring clarity, instruction, and affirmation.

The form of drawing doesn’t matter (except that the conventional form of drawing is a particularly good expression of the function). It’s the function of drawing that’s essential and will find new and better means of expression, starting with recognition that the function can be expressed IN the information.

This frees up tremendous possibility for what “drawing” can be,  and likewise what spatial information can be, and be for (a place for being).

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