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.

Mondify

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.

Darwindrian

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])http://www.fujipress.jp/finder/xslt.php?mode=present&inputfile=JACII001600070016.xml), 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.

Darwindrian

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.

Triade

Triade

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.

Boompjes

My favourite architectural image is on display at the moment. Seeing something 'in the flesh' that you've looked for so long in a book was one of those knee-wobble experiences, a pure hyperkulturemia moment.

It's this:

Boompjes housing OMA

It's on display as part of the OMA/Progress exhibition currently on at the Barbican. Overall I found the exhibition to be rather disappointing. I am a huge fan of the work of OMA/ Rem Koolhaas but this exhibition seemed to try too hard to downplay the heroic imagery and signature form-making and instead be wilfully as scrappy as possible. In an attempt to counteract the 'starchitect' syndrome and demonstrate the amount of research and the full design process it becomes rather impenetrable. There's much to explore but not much eye candy. Which is why the image of the Boompjes housing project really stands out. It's beautiful.

This has been just about my favourite architectural representation ever since I first saw it in the catalogue of the Deconstructivism exhibition at the MoMA in 1988, curated by Mark Wrigley and Philip Johnson.

It's a triptych created by OMA as a design research project for a housing on the Boompjes in Rotterdam in 1980.

Here's what OMA say about this project on their own website:

At the end of 1980 OMA was asked by the city of Rotterdam to conduct a study of high rise building in the city, and to illustrate the investigations with a planning proposal for a site in the centre. In consultation with the Town Planning Department, a site was selected on the Maasboulevard along near the Maasbridges. We see the angle between the river and the lower side of the grid as a 'hinge' between the city and the river. Here the river is closest to the centre. The shifting of the centre through the injection of gigantic buildings in the second reconstruction makes this point most suitable to take over the role of the 'window' in the disclosing of the riverfront. The site is peculiar. On one hand it is embedded in a network of traffic lanes, like the new suspension bridge across the Maas whose approach makes its way into the city through two inexplicable twists. On the other hand there lies a unique opportunity to connect the river with the city. The city is visible, but hardly accessible; any structure will be noted in passing, at bewilderingly different speeds and angles.

The building and the bridge are designed as an undetachable whole. Built as a composition of towers inserted in a slab, the project carries on the experiments in slaboid mutations and new building types that were done after the war in the bombed areas. It forms a transparent screen along the riverfront. On the riverside the screen acts as a row of stone towers against a glass horizon, introducing a skyline in the Rotterdam skyline, and on the city side it acts as a stone slab with glass towers and slits, that portray pieces of the river. Due to their different angles, the glass surfaces on the city side reflect the light in different directions and mostly they only reflect air and water, not buildings. The building is designed toward the kinetic experience, caused by the passing of the site with different speeds across the bridges and the boulevard: The towers all have a different angle to the slab: some fall backwards, others are contained, others twist away and the steel tower has altogether escaped.

The average height of the building in 72 meters. For a tower this is not so high, for a slab it is (according to Dutch standards). The composition of these elements in this project claims a fair height to be effective in the skyline of the Rotterdam harbour, where the juxtaposition of extremely high constructions with lower city districts is a frequently appearing image.

Now that the city nears completion, the riverfront – more precisely, the so-called Maasboulevard, a curved dike that protects the rest of the city – remains under-exploited and is one of the last frontiers for further development. The two structures for Rotterdam are located exactly at this point; they form a ‘cornerstone’ of the old ‘modern’ centre, and face, across the fault, the multitude of anti-modernist revisions.

This project had a triple purpose: to activate the riverfront; to propose a ‘solution’ for the bridgehead of the old bridge that will become redundant after the inauguration of the new one; and to suggest an apartment building for a site against the old bridge. The site is peculiar: one side is quayside, the other is formed by a riverside highway, one the side of a bridge. It is visible, but hardly accessible; any structure on it will be noted in passing, at bewilderingly different speeds and angles.

There's so much to enjoy in this image - more than you can make out in this small version above, and like all great art rewards patient engagement. It is not a painting, nor is it a traditional architectural drawing, even if it can be read alternately as either. The image mixes and collapses several modes of representation onto one composition, which might be a fairly common concept today but wasn't back in 1980, and owes more to Suprematism than traditional architectural renderings. It is not an image that can be 'read' easily, it does not illustrate the Boompjes proposal but is an exploration, part of the design process. It collapse a huge number of influences and themes onto the space of the drawing. In my opinion it does not represent the project - it is the project.

The central part of the composition in the middle panel is an isometric representation of the site and OMA's proposal, which consists of a slab block articulated by with a number of projecting and slanting towers ("experiments in slaboid mutations"), a Constructivist viewing platform/ tower, and a number of other urban interventions. Extending beyond this is the urban context, with certain landmark elements, such as the Maas river and the two bridges the Willemsbrug and the Spoorbrug. There is also the White House, a Rotterdam landmark as a prototype skyscraper and one of the few buildings left standing after the Nazi bombardment in the Second World War, delineated but not filled in, as our several other nearby tall buildings, shown to provide context. There is also a small drawing of the building plan.

Boompjes housing OMA

The isometric view of the main building with its five glass tower elements are reflected below, each given its own colour. Viewing this in 1988 I read these as the structure's virtual reflection, its presence in a Gibsonian cyberspace. Thus the drawing shows the proposed building but also its own mediation. The tower element is a pure Constructivist composition inspired directly by El Lissitzky's platform for Lenin. In the right hand panel is a tiny city map, a larger scale plan, and some other unknown elements. Similarly, the left hand panel contains a series of shapes, which I think relate to the programmatic use of each of the four tower, plus some attempts I think to explore the 'kinetic' view of the project from different viewpoints and speeds, again a homage to Suprematism and a similar concept to that of the early work of Zaha Hadid.

Boompjes housing OMA

In the book Rem Koolhaas /OMA by Robert Gargiani, he examines this project as an example of Koolhaas' Contextualist period:

'The concept of Contextualism was critically examined in the project for the complex of the Boompjes in Rotterdam, prepared by Koolhaas in 1980-82 and commissioned by the City Government. The lot is outside the historical centre, on the banks of the Meuse along Maasboulevard, near the Spoorbrug and the Willemsbrug. This area was emblematically chosen by OMA, without any indication from the city, for its character as a residual zone in a content that was even more chaotic and varied than that of the Binnenhof, at the converging point of different sectors of the city that had been razed by bombing during World War II. The area belongs to the category of the Terrains Vagues of Constant, and therefore particularly relevant for the expression of Contextualism without any precise character. The fact that the government was interested in testing "the impact of the high-rise building on the city-scape", also following the success of Delirious New York, allowed Koolhaas to invent a volumetric situation based on that of the skyscrapers of New York, like the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and Rockefeller Center, specifying a functional program on the models of the New York hotel and the Soviet workers' club. The complex. 72 meters in height and composed of the assemblage of multiple volumes, is configured according to the criteria of Malevich and Ferriss as an abstract edified bulk, "designed from the outside in", as Koolhaas put it.

Boompjes housing OMA

The other drawings OMA created for this project do not really interest me (apart from a fantastic worms-eye axon of the Constructivist tower, of which more later). They are about building form, concrete proposal. Whereas the isometric triptych, called the Rotterdam Summation in the MoMA catalogue, is about urban appearances, the self-image of the city.

It's clear to see the development of themes in this project with subsequent OMA projects, but the influence of this image upon the realm of architectural representation should also not be underestimated. I shall be going back to see it again at least once before the exhibition ends on 19th Feb 2012.

Rotterdam hexagon urban identity

Hexagon Rotterdam

In 1972, Wim Crouwel and his Total Design company created an identity system for the Municipality of Rotterdam. The Gemeente Rotterdam identity used a hexagon grid to visually represent the city in an abstracted way.

Hexagon Rotterdam

At the recent exhibition of the work of Wim Crouwel at the Design Museum, there are some more examples of the identity and its application. These images are mostly taken from the fantastic book TD63-73 about Total Design, by Unit Editions.

Hexagon Rotterdam

Hexagon Rotterdam

As the book TD63-73 puts it:

"Rendering the entire shape of the town (sic) with 'honeycomb" shapes was a way to future-proof the identity: it could easily be adapted and able to respond to respond to any further development of the town's borders and harbours."

Hexagon Rotterdam

It is reminiscent of the hex maps of many board games, the hexagon map of London (previously written about here), and also the NikeGrid London:

Nike Grid London

Related posts:
• Branding the Boroughs 2 • Learning from Niketown • Het Nieuwe Bouwen

Het Nieuwe Bouwen

Het Nieuwe Bouwen in Rotterdam, book jacket

Back in the day, I probably knew more about the modern movement in Dutch architecture, Het Nieuwe Bouwen, than just about anything else. Had I been asked to select a specialist subject to appear on Mastermind, it's probably what I would have chosen. These days I've forgotten more than I can remember, but the recent sight of these posters by Wim Crouwel has rekindled my memory, and why I was (and remain) so fascinated by it.

The Dutch experiment with Functionalism seemed to be much more engaged than the brief flirtation of the UK. The evolution of ideas and form works of precursors such as Berlage, van de Velde and Dudok, through to Duiker, Oud, Rietveld and onto to Brinkmann, van der Vlugt, Bekama etc. to my eyes form a compelling continuum of experimentation, openness and shared ambition, and established a platform for the confidence of Dutch architecture throughout the course of the 20th Century.

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, CIAM poster

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, posters

These posters, created by Crouwel's Total Studio in 1983 to accompany a series of exhibitions across museums Holland including the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Kröller-Müller at Otterlo, and the Gementesmuseum in The Hague. Each of the exhibitions was accompanied by a book, also designed by Crouwel/ Total Studio, and these are well worth tracking down for both their beautiful design as well as their content.

The beauty of the covers/ posters, with the axonometric view of the signature buildings, on a silvered background with the roof picked out in white, and with the helvetica type set at a 45 degree angle, reflects a total synthesis between graphic design and architecture. It doesn't get better than this.

(The images shown here don't really do them justice - I will scan and photograph the covers of my book copies to replace them shortly, if anyone has any decent images of the posters please let me know).

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, books You can pick these books up second hand but you can also download 4 of them from Scribd (links: Previous History, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, De Stijl, CIAM). If you're feeling rich you can also buy the posters, try here.

This post sponsored by Portakabin:
Modular construction

A brand for London

"Branding, it could be said, is the greatest gift commerce has given to culture"

So said Wally Olins, on the blog of Saffron Consultants, recently appointed to create the brand for London.

The Brand for London nearly didn't happen, At the judging proces of the pitches, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, seemed to undergo an attack of the why bothers. "Why are we doing this?" he allegedly asked, perhaps mindful of the inevitable backlash that will result when Londoners find out what they've got for their £650,000.

The thinking behind creating a Brand for London is to create something that can stand as a defining emblem of the city, which is currently under siege from a barrage of logos, as deftly illustrated here by Michael Johnson of agency Johnson Banks.

London logos

The problem with a Brand for London is similar to the problem that benights the NYC brand for New York City - there is already a 'default' emblem in place. For New York, the incumbent is the I heart NY logo created by Milton Glaser back in the 1970's for the tourist board. In London, the London Transport roundel icon, the blue line though the red circle, occupies a similar place in peoples affections.

I love NY vs NYC

There is a very real chance, that rather than providing a single point of identity for London, it will just be one other to add to the morass, along with the 2012 logo that still divides public opinion.

As with all these branding exercises, the fee inevitably becomes a point of contention, the Evening Standard headlines write themselves, £650,000 to create a squiggle that a child could do. But the truth is the designers have got their work cut out. One of the agencies pitching, Moving Brands, whose work I admire greatly, tried to build on the concept of a 'crowd-sourced' identity and created a blog to engage users. The problem is that pretty much all of the designs submitted by users sucked beyond belief.

we_are_london

Here's a selection of city brands from around the world.

City brands

I amsterdam

Belfast brand

It is rather disturbing to note that Saffron previously created the moronic Belfast branding. Is it me or does this look dated already?

I like the way that the "I amsterdam" logo is created as a physical entity, a functional typographical object, and scaled to the size of public sculpture for tourists to climb on, distributed via a thousand digital photographs.

Lastly, here is the new identity for Melbourne, Australia, to show that sometimes these things do come off.

Melbourne identity

Why do cities feel the need for brand identities? I think much of it is to do with the mediation of modern life. Cities are dissemination, distributed, experienced remotely much more frequently than physically. Cities compete with each other for attention, kudos and status in order to attract investment, visitors and to host events. Style mags create league tables of desirable cities (cf Monocle's Liveable Cities guide), or Richard Florida's Creative Cities guide.

All are operating within a decreasing attention span, where an instant visual shorthand can stand in lieu of the real place. This has progressed from architectural and objective stereotypes (the red bus, the houses of parliament), to stylised maps, to the virtual, the purely symbolic, the logo.

Fake Omaha

One day, all cities will be rendered as logo. The next step is for the sign to break free of its signifier. Like Fake Omaha, Mega-City 1, or Eden-Olympia, let us create brands for cities that do not exist.


Previously: