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.


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] (

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.


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.


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.


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.

RMB City

RMB City

RMB City

RMB City

Chinese artist Cao Fei, AKA China Tracy, has an exhibition of her Second Life installation RMB City at Lombard Freid Projects in New York from February 29th to April 5th, 2008.

RMB City is an installation created by China Tracy in Second Life, a parody of contemporary Chinese culture - a giant panda swinging on a crane counterweighted by OMA's CCTV building, for instance, and a commentary on the urban development goldrush currently at full steam across China:

"RMB City will be the condensed incarnation of contemporary Chinese cities with most of their characteristics; a series of new Chinese fantasy realms that are highly self-contradictory, inter-permeative, laden with irony and suspicion, and extremely entertaining and pan-political. China's current obsession with land development in all its intensity will be extended to Second Life. A rough hybrid of communism, socialism and capitalism, RMB City will be realized in a globalized digital sphere combining overabundant symbols of Chinese reality with cursory imaginings of the country's future."

You can see more on YouTube here: RMB CITY - A Second Life City Planning:

Brutal Virtuality

Robin Hood Gardens

Margaret Hodge, UK architecture minister, on modernist architecture:

"When some concrete monstrosity - sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece - fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let's find a third way. This is the 21st Century - a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever."

Hodges comments come a few weeks before English Heritage will make its recommendation to Hodge whether to list Robin Hood Gardens, a housing estate in the Brutalist style, completed in 1972.

So what would Robin Hood Gardens look like in digital form?

Much of what makes brutalist architecture so polarising is that it is so uncompromising - its brooding physicality is almost the antithesis of the pure superficiality of the digital simulacra . Brutalist buildings don't ask to be liked, and as Amanda Baillieu says in her BD editorial, the Robin Hood Gardens estate "is not an esay place to love". Much of their appeal (or 'monstrosity') comes from the raw qualities of concrete, what Le Corbusier called the béton brut, with the patina given by years of staining, weathering and abuse. Can this uncompromising materiality ever be represented in cyberspace?

As can be seen from many recent computer games, virtual environments are getting better at representing the dirt in the cracks of the real world, creating imperfect alternate futures. There's no reason why digital architectural models cannot move beyond the shiny plasticity of most of todays walk-throughs and fly-bys to show something more visceral and down at heel, representing the ravages of time, weathering and unsocial behaviour.

In some ways, a digital simulation of a project may be a more accurate representation of it's original aims. Robin Hood Gardens was never used or inhabited the way that the Smithsons intended. Inevitably it became filled with low-income families, as previously mentioned about Park Hill: "sink social housing for the dispossessed, the rootless and the shiftless".

Simon Smithson, the son of architects Alison and Peter Smithson, recalls the early days of Robin Hood Gardens in an interview at BD online:

I think it became obvious soon after the families moved in, and we went to see it. They moved in problem families from the outset, and when we talked to the warden and he showed us that the old peoples' centre that had been smashed up and had to be locked, it shook my father to the core.

But what I remember as a child is how modern the flats were. They were big, light and had central heating, which we didn't have at home. The flats were well built and the detailing was of a quality you simply don't see today. The way the acoustic problems were dealt with was a tour de force.

Given that RHG, if saved from demolition, will never to be restored to it's pristine original state, and will need to be remodelled and adapted to new uses, there is a strong case that a digital archive may be a more accurate preservation of the original building. Imagine a comprehensive digital archive of Robin Hood Gardens, available online with access for all, with drawings and documentation, photographs of the building tracing it's troubled history. Combine this with a collection of state-of-the-art 3D models, available for download under a Creative Commons licence, and including models capable of being experienced, navigated and inhabited with the latest immersive technologies, would be a fine legacy for the Smithson's endeavour.

Inevitably, the more people learn about Robin Hood Gardens the more keen they will be to visit it, to experience it in real life, which is why I support the listing and revitalisation of RHG. But it cannot be preserved as a monument, a shrine to Brutalism - it must be made to work as a building, a place.

Margaret Hodge has backed herself into a corner with her comments. She cannot now do nothing. She must either agree to list Robin Hood Gardens, or commit to a National Digital Architecture Archive. It is my passionate hope that she does both.


Virtual Brutality

Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens

Another Brutalist landmark is under threat of demolition. This time it's Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, East London. Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, and completed in 1972, it looks likely that the local council, Tower Hamlets, will demolish the building and look to redevelop the site.

The only hope is that it receives listed building status, and becomes the protectorate of English Heritage. But conferring listed building status ultimately lies in the hands of the architecture minister, Margaret Hodge, who has weighed in with the following astonishing comment, in the recent issue of Grand Designs, and requoted in Building Design:

"When some concrete monstrosity - sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece - fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let's find a third way. This is the 21st Century - a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever."

This is either visionary prescience or the inane ramblings of a deranged lunatic. There is the germ of an amazing concept here - that we should create a National Digital Archive of high quality 3D models of our country's best buildings, which can be visited and explored in a virtual environment.

That this then presumably clears the way to demolish all that doesn't fit Hodge's aesthetic sensibilities is where she lurches from visionary to tyranny.

While the words 'conservation' and 'heritage' generally cause shivers to run down my spine, the revitalisation of the Brunswick Centre and to a lesser extent the redevelopment of Park Hill in Sheffield by Urban Splash, show that there is plenty of demand for some BoHo Brutalism. Superficially, it took little more than a Starbucks and a Waitrose to transform the concourse of the Brunswick Centre from a forlorn, windswept precinct to a popular urban hangout.

Goldfinger's masterful Trellick Tower was once also held with similar contempt as the Smithsons RHG, and now its flats are in high demand, often selling at above market rates. Likewise the Unite d'Habitation in Marseille, which was a powerful precedent for Robin Hood Gardens. Could Robin Hood Gardens also be turned into a desirable residence for owner occupiers? Unless and until more compelling alternatives are put forward, it should be saved.

(images from Flickr user Joseph Beuys Hat)

Re-presenting Hadid

Hadid Silver Painting

Hadid Silver Painting

Hadid Silver Painting

Here are a few recent paintings by Zaha Hadid, from a show at the Galerie Buchmann. (see Flickr set here). There were also some of these silver prints on display at the recent Zaha retrospective at the Design Museum.

While visually stunning, they are little more than a striking way of re-presenting computer renderings, rather than design explorations. Does the act of producing these images change the design approach?

The place of design is now within the computer, not the drawing.

These paintings are pure surface.

"The Silver Paintings are executed on a polyester skin treated with chrome and gelatine then mounted on to an aluminium DI-BOND to resemble polished metal.

Different media are used depending on the desired effect. Stained glass paint offers transparency while acrylic and Chinese lacquer generate opaqueness. UV-resistant ink combined with vinyl gives the highest degrees of reflectivity. These techniques combine to suggest a gradual intersection between reflectivity and opacity, from one architectural feature to the next."