Generative De Stijl

Mondrian scrutinizing Victory Boogie Woogie

A recent competition, Elegant Algorithms, organised by Setup in the Netherlands, challenged entrants to create a digital version of Piet Mondrian's painting Victory Boogie Woogie.The results range from faithful reproduction to radical reworkings, but all are fascinating in their own way. Each one includes a link to the code, so you can also look 'under the hood' and tinker.

The original Victory Boogie Woogie was unfinished, as Mondrian died of pneumonia in New York in 1944. But even so, the progression from Broadway Boogie Woogie of 1943 is profound, the simple grid of small coloured squares becoming more fractured, and with larger colour planes floating above and behind the grid; the lozenge format adds further visual tension. It arguably shows a transition to a more three-dimensional mode of representation than the resolutely flat pictures of Mondrian's earlier abstract works.

I'd never realised that Mondrian was such catnip for generative design wonks. But it turns out there is a long history of generative design projects that take the work of Mondrian as a starting point, especially the later, pure abstract works Mondrian called neo-plasticism.


There's a great explanation video of one of the Elegant Algorithms entries, Mondify, by Kiri Nichol:

One of Mondrian early works, painted when he was on the cusp of pure abstraction, was also the subject of one of the most famous scientific experiments into aesthetics by Michael Noll, who wanted to see if people could tell a Mondrian painting, Composition in Line (1916) from a computer generated one. His study revealed that only 28% of subjects could identify the original Mondrian.

Real or fake Mondrian?

Mondrian generators are fairly commonplace online. Darwindrian (composition of 'Darwin' and 'Mondrian') is an AI program creating painting with neo-plasticism style using a variation of genetic algorithm. It generates 20 images, and then you can select which ones you like to be used in the next generation.


myData=myMondrian by CJ Yeh (2004) will create a Mondrian-esque composition based on your own personal data.

Cyber-genetic Neo-plasticism is an AI program creating Mondrian-like paintings by using interactive bacterial evolution algorithm.

While it's relatively easy to create a Mondrian-generator which can spit out Mondrian-esque compositions capable of fooling the average layperson, a recent study by a group of Korean students at Chungbuk National University has tackled the much more difficult reverse problem - trying to spot a genuine Mondrian from a raft of imitations. Their research used machine learning to understand the deeper subconscious rules that Mondrian used in this paintings that he would probably been unaware of. This has great implications in the future for the authentication and verification of works of art.

The paper, [Supervised Learning-Based Feature Selection for Mondrian Paintings Style Authentication]), is long on maths and short on art theory, but is fascinating in its method:

"First, the Mondrian oeuvre of neoplasticism is compiled in a digital form and encoded as script. Second, based on this statistical information, a statistical generative model is built to produce pseudo-Mondrian style works. Third, the two supervised learning methods are applied to classify the collection of both Mondrian’s works and computer-generated works."

Once the machine method has learnt to distinguish the real from the computer generated, it can then be applied to other images to attempt a distinction. Their conclusion was that 'region portioning' and 'dual graph' were the most meaningful ways of distinguishing a real Mondrian from the fake.

But this knowledge also makes it possible to refine better Mondrian fakes, an arms race in the detection between the real and the simulation. A purely compositional approach to detecting Mondrian fakes is thus perhaps doomed to failed. Instead the time honoured forensic techniques of detecting forgeries based on the physical properties of the paintings seems more reliable, such as canvas analysis and paint analysis using spectroscopy.


Could a generative approach to 2D images of a highly formal movement such as De Stijl also be applied to 3D design? The furniture of Gerrit Rietveld seems eminently suitable for a generative, dare I say parametric approach, as does the most complete manifestation of De Stijl in architecture, the Rietveld-Schroder House. This seems to be an area ripe for future exploration.



I finally got round to finishing my first iPad app. Called Triade, it's a fun tool for creating images made entirely out of triangles, using a technique called Delaunay Triangulation.

It's now available in the iTunes store. Click to find out more on the Triade app page here.

Why 2010 wont be like '2010'


In 1984, during the third quarter of Superbowl XVIII, Apple aired its infamous advert, directed by Ridley Scott, to launch the Apple Macintosh, and proclaimed that "1984 won't be like '1984'".


Fast forward 26 years, and it's clear that 2010 won't be like '2010'.

Written by Arthur C Clarke in 1982, and made into a film in 1984 by Peter Hyams, '2010' is the sequel to '2001', and follows Dr Heywood Floyd (Roy Schieder), as he travels onboard the Soviet spacecraft Alexei Leonov to retrieve USS Discovery and try and revive HAL. The story is set against a backdrop of escalating nuclear tension between the two superpowers.

2010 2010 2010

Visually, while not as intoxicating or sensuous as Kubrick's masterful '2001' (about which I've written previously), '2010' is still a great film. I love the interior shots of the Leonov, aglow with thousands of brightly-lit buttons and instrument panels. The computers aboard the Leonov are tactile, push-button, and display crude (but charming) simple vectorised graphics.

2010 2010 2010

But it's not just the Cold War that has faded in the interim, or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I was watching a video of '2010' on an iPhone when I was suddenly struck by the dichotomy between the future presented on the screen and the future as it turned out, with the iPhone representing perhaps the definitive piece of technology of the current decade.


Computers have become personalised, miniaturised, portals into another space - cyberspace. Released, like the film of '2010', in 1984, William Gibson's novel Neuromancer has been a far more potent vision of the future than Clarke's 'hard' sci-fi vision. Neuromancer represents a phase shift rather than simply a projection of contemporary technologies into the future. In many ways, Neuromancer helped define the future.

2010 2010

Unlike the computers of 2010, the computers in '2010' do not create space. The computers of the Leonov, and even HAL 9000 on the Discovery, are little more than tools or automatons, tactile and solid. Whereas HAL looked out into our world, today we look into the world created within the computer.

2010 2010

We've replaced the dreams of visiting other planets with the inner space of computer devices. Our focus has shifted from exploring outer space to the computer generated world of cyberspace.

As I write, the tech-press is building itself into a frenzied state of excitement speculating what the new Apple tablet, iSlate, or whatever is revealed at the launch event on Thursday 27th January 2010, might do to create a new paradigm for Human Computer Interface, the next evolution of personal computing technology. The horizon of our vision for technology is no longer interplanetary travel but multi-touch user interface designs.

Our ambition seems to have shrunk to the size of a touchscreen tablet. Expect a monolith of a very different kind.

City of signs 9


Well covered by the blogerati, (such as here, here and here) but worth investigating further, Logorama is a short film by H5 that has been doing the recent round of film festivals including onedotzero, In the animation all characters, objects and buildings are represented by logos, the city of signs in the most literal way possible.

Logorama_02 Logorama_03

The film takes the concept that we are immersed in a saturated advertising landscape to its logical conclusion, the city becomes a brandscape of overlapping marks and symbols. The ubiquity of these logos as part of a collective visual consciousness has overtaken their role as badges denoting a product's provenance.


A trailer can be watched here.


City of Signs 8

Channel 4 idents

Channel 4 idents Over the last few years the Channel 4 idents have become a ubiquitous presence for UK viewers, making it easy to take for granted their visual significance.

In these idents, the camera moves through a landscape - such as a brutalist housing estate, an American city, a Japanese city a series of pylons - which for a brief moment reveals itself as the Channel 4 logo.
Signs become fleeting structure, for an instance, structure is resolved into meaningful sign.

I've often daydreamed whether it would be possible for architects, urban planners and landscape designers to hide codes and signs into their creations, which would only be revealed when viewed from a certain position.

Google Earth has revealed new symbolism in buildings, such as this Navy base in California:

Navy building, California

In the meantime, there's always GeoGreeting.



Recently at SuperSpatial

Dubai Opera House

Over at sister blog SuperSpatial, you'll find a calvacade of inanity, including:

016. Reimagining Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens' high rise but low density development, with a unique green open space at its centre, forms the centrepiece for a fundamental urban redevelopment that focuses on public space and interaction.

015. A Night at the Opera

Hadid's Opera House in Dubai is the first true architecture of the 21st Century. Digital. Sleek. Perfect. So why build it?

014. Meet the Starchitects

These caricatures, by Kathryn Rathke, could become the definitive image of these architects.