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Remixing in Grasshopper

Noiz / Architecture pushes generative modeling to new heights

by Brett Duesing

One of Keisuke Toyoda’s recent experiments in generative modeling “samples” a work of another: the Beijing National Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron.  His rendering shows the Bird’s Nest of last year’s Olympics strapped down by what appear to be tens of thousands of steel cables, which shoot up to over twice the height of the stadium roof.

Toyoda doubts that the architect would mind the re-appropriation as a creative exercise.  “In their early days, H&deM did a sort of similar thing, a photo collage of an addition on top of Tadao Ando’s building,” Toyoda recalls, “so I am sure they wouldn’t complain about us using their image for a remix.”
16Toyoda is one of the founding partners of the Toyko-based Noiz/Architecture, Design & Planning, a firm whose name also invites a comparison to the world of audio.   According Toyoda, the connotation was intentional. Bold debuts of musical styles, whether a ballet by Tchaikovsky or an album by Metallica, have always been called noise.  In the same spirit, the designers at Noiz look out for new 3D forms that challenge the conventions of its audience.

The remixed Bird’s Nest seems so novel — so noisy — because its textures are unfamiliar.  The word whiskery is not often ascribed to buildings.  The image is also an example of how a small conceptual shift in 3D modeling is now producing a mother lode of innovative forms for studios like Noiz in search of the unexpected.

Shapes of a new generation

Surprisingly, Toyoda only had to model one strand to generate the overwhelming intricacy seen in the remixed Bird’s Nest. This was achieved in Grasshopper, a new plug-in for the 3D NURBS modeler Rhinoceros.  Grasshopper splits the view of a 3D composition on to two different conceptual levels: the familiar 3D visual model next to a display of the logical model of the design.

This interactive history tree allows Toyoda to repeat modeling actions while varying them.  He can easily set up geometric changes according to one shape’s relationship to another.  For instance, he can instruct a strand to bow slightly when tilted in respect to a ground plane to mimic gravity.  He can replicate one strand over a dense grid of points to make a field of 25,000.    He can change this flat grid to rolling ground by plugging in a curvilinear surface.  “Originally, we tried out several 3D surfaces to vary the normals of the strands,” he says.  “I just thought it might be interesting if we use the Birds Nest and add in a realistic context.”gh-rgb1

This automation power has long been available to programmers, but scripting was a long and tedious affair that was too far removed from visual feedback.  With the Grasshopper interface, designers with no programming experience can play around with the logic just as easily they would the 3D model.  Composition then jumps up a structural meta-level – not just drawing shapes, but assigning behavior to shapes.

“This technology has a lot of undiscovered space to stroll around in,” Toyoda says.  “One of the advantages of the software is the ability to model on the fly without having to be a total techie. Since none of us is really a ‘computer person,’ Grasshopper’s interface fits really well for us.  It allows us to do programming with more intuitive understanding, without really writing a script.”

Molecular remix

The Birds’ Nest remix was the end point of that particular experiment, but others become the creative starting point in real architectural projects at Noiz.

Another experimental inspiration was the spirogyra, a kind of microscopic green algae known for its helical structure and luminous green color.  Not long after Noiz designers re-generated the form in Grasshopper as a modeling puzzle, the team found a home for it as a dominant motif for the Hongqiao Office Building (HOB).  Green-tinted spirogyra forms act as vertical supports and carriers of the ventilation system.

“The HOB is sited at the corner of an industrial park, so it had to fulfill the role of a landmark for the whole development and express the futuristic as well as environmental themes as much as possible,” Toyoda explains. “The spirogyra just seemed to fit this purpose.   And, because this site in a suburb of Shanghai tends is a dry and dusty atmosphere, the green color and organic forms add some natural vitality.”

Crucifix remix

The Noiz team developed another project, the exterior of the GoodTV headquarters, almost entirely in Grasshopper. At night, the Christian TV station and an urban church in Taipei, Taiwan, transforms into a four-dimensional light show.  The wall facing the highway features a field of glowing antennae of various lengths. A three-dimensional surface and the outline of the cross are slowly revealed to passing motorists.

“The overall presence of a cross is meant to be very vague and ethereal, like a mist in the air,” says Toyoda, who took influences from contemporary artists like Jim Campbell and Michal Rovner, whose images are kept intentionally blurry or ambiguous.

Chasing the unexpected is the standard course at Noiz, as generative modeling is fast becoming a permanent fixture in its process.  The design team now is in the habit of remixing of their initial ideas.

“Using Grasshopper, we can build a design-process model to produce what we need in actual design, then modify the process model to see what kind of variety we can get,” Jia-Shuan Tsai, Toyoda’s partner explains. “We try several options to see if there would be anything we didn’t expect originally. Sometimes this newly found path can lead you into a whole different area.”

About Noiz

New Forms of music in their infancy has often been taken as noise.  The name of Noiz / Architecture, Design & Planning takes its cue from developments in music history, as an everyday reminder of the firm’s commitment to unique and insightful design solutions.  Founded by Keisuke Toyoda and Jia-Shuan Tsai in 2006, Noiz brings together their joined experience in institutional, commercial, and residential design in Asia and the United States.  For more examples from Noiz, please visit: www.noizarchitects.com.

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