On the fascination of geometry in developing problem-solving approaches

I am intrigued by the interesting efforts of some folks to enlist the logic and beauty of geometric structures to the task of designing communication and organizational ‘approaches’ to teamwork, collective planning and problem-solving. It brings to mind memories from my own youth that may have some pertinent lessons for these new endeavours.

Fresh out of architecture school, very soon realizing that we hadn’t been told some essential things we needed, but eager to explore new frontiers, I became involved with a group of ‘mobile architecture’ in Europe (GEAM –‘Groupe d’Étude de Architecture Mobile: Yona Friedman, Schulze-Fielitz and others).

Studying the geometric basis of structural systems that could be mass produced (‘industrialized’) to create ‘space frame’ buildings and urban environments allowing users to easily modify the ‘infill’ of floors and walls to suit changing needs, we were fascinated by the insights of how all the regular 3D geometric forms were inherent in structures starting with simple cubic forms and their plane and space diagonals; endlessly battling the problem of joints and connections for these systems. Of course Wachsmann and especially Buckminster Fuller were our heroes; Bucky’s tensegrity structures embodied the ideals of stability, geometric logic, and lightness — achieving maximum strength with minimal material and resources. With Schulze-Fielitz, I explored ‘diagonal’ urban systems featuring continuous 3D transportation systems (unlike the ‘Manhattan’ skyscrapers with their dead-end elevator systems (that ended up dooming the hapless folks in the 9-11 twin towers disaster) giving apartments at least some minimal outdoor ‘roof garden opportunities while creating covered public spaces, with more efficient densities than conventional developments); we designed schemes for a space frame ‘channel’ bridge, new universities, housing systems, exposition projects. All unpaid, after hours, long ‘all-nighter’ fun. Even a large construction firm started asking us to develop concrete building systems.

We were slow to realize that the fascination with the pristine structural systems was missing several critical points. A critical one was that the real problem was not the optimal design of one of the various subsystems of buildings and urban developments, but the coordination of all of those systems, keeping all of them from getting in each others’ way. Not only transportation — the clumsy way streets, above-ground and underground rail transport and high-rise elevator systems are cobbled together — but the other infrastructure of water supply, sanitation (sewer) systems, power and gas supply, urban steam heating lines, communication systems, fire protection and other safety/security systems. The ubiquitous joke of the city having just repaved the street only to have the sanitation department coming in to tear them up again to repair the sewers was matched by the jungle of systems inside the buildings. The’ flexibility’ chaos of electrical wiring and pipes inside even today’s 21C houses, has to be covered up by sheetrock. The beautiful filigree structural system: no longer visible — Paxton’s Chrystal Palace, Bucky’s Montreal Expo dome, a beautiful little space frame church by Schulze-Fielitiz, all ignoring the need for insulating the steel, all fell victim to fire.

There were some heroic efforts to grapple with the multiple systems coordination issue — examples such as the Robertson Ward / Inland Steel entry to the 1960’s California School Systems development competition, (I worked in Ward’s office trying to design a flexible multiple service system for a College Science building) or Fritz Haller’s computer program for designing coordinated layouts of highly complex service systems for research buildings. They resulted in designs so impressively complex that the intended flexibility was never practically achieved, the manuals unread and soon forgotten. There was the legendary story about a researcher trying to follow up on the use of one of the California School Systems buildings, explaining the concept to a principal who had come to office some years after the initial construction. The principal, excited by the idea of e.g. movable partitions etc. exclaimed how he would love to have such a building — with the researcher replying “But sir, you are sitting in one!”

So the spectacle of efforts to harness the logic and beauty of geometric structures for the task of designing approaches to planning, collaboration, conflict resolution etc. raises some questions that should be examined and answered, explained, before turning those analogies into societal practice and decisions at large scale. What, specifically, is the point of those analogies, the justification for their transfer to these social realms?

– The literal application of analogy features to the other system?
– Ensuring validity of systems designs by testing them against certain features of the stable, beautiful, adaptive geometric systems? (which features?)
– Ensuring validity by drawing design ideas from ‘nature’s systems (in this case, geometry as a natural system)?
– Drawing inspiration and motivation from the geometric systems to pursue corresponding truth, beauty, logic, adaptability and strength in our designs?

Any of these and other possible rationales may have merit, I’m sure. Some may be more questionable than others — e.g. the design recipe I have heard architecture professors convey to students, of starting a project by selecting some ‘concept’ drawn from nature: A leaf, a sea shell, an open hand, an embrace? Then developing the further design of the building based on that concept, which will remain as an invisible ‘secret’ lending some depth or validity to the design…

What I would like to see is some demonstration, elaboration of the rationale for whichever of these ideas is at the base of this strategy. Explanations in the face of skeptical questions such as those I learned to ask about those efforts to make the logic of single systems, e.g. geometry, the basis for the entire enterprise of architectural design. I would like to see examples of features that justify and elucidate the usefulness and validity of the application of the analogy to the respective consulting approach.

Without such explanations — the very appeal and intricacy of the geometric system does not count! — there remain traces of suspicion. Of superstitious fads that replace the hard work of analysis, reasoning, deliberation with shortcut ‘rules of thumb’ (rather than brain…) and incantations of magic. Mystery, yes: design of decision patterns users/viewers can ‘discover’ and make part of their own ‘making’ (appropriation) and acceptance of the design. But ‘magic’ by analogy as a marketing and selling tool? Whiffs of of snake oil. And the sloppy models of crooked pipe cleaners showing tetrahedron structures? The goddess of geometry would be offended.

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