NURBS theory | conceptualizing cultural processes: from discrete categories to continuous curves

The explosion of new ideas and methods in cultural disciplines from the 1960s did not seem to affect the presentation cultural processes in practice. Books and museums devoted to art, design, media, and other cultural areas continue to arrange their subjects into small numbers of discrete categories: periods, artistic schools, -isms, cultural movements. The chapters in a book and rectangular rooms of most museums act as material dividers between these categories. A continuously evolving cultural "organism" is forced into artificial boxes.

If we are currently fascinated with the ideas of flow, evolution, complexity, heterogenuity, and cultural hybridity, why our representations and presentations of cultural data do not reflect these ideas?


Typical museum floorplan: Spencer Museum of Art.

While this famous diagram of the evolution of modern art made by Barr (the founder and first director of MOMA in NewYork) in still uses discrete categories as its building block, it is an improvement over standard art timelines and art musems floorplans. Barr presents the history of modern art as a connected graph. Unfortunately, this is the only well-known art history diagram produced in the whole 20th century (!)

In contrast, since the first decades of the the 19th century, scientific publications came to widely use graphical techniques which allowed to represent phenomena as continuosly varying. During that period, "all of the modern forms of data display were invented: bar and pie charts, histograms, line graphs and time-series plots, contour plots, and so forth."

1832: The first graph which fits a smoothed curve to a scatterplot: positions vs time for g; Virginis (John Herschel, England).

1837: First published flow maps, showing transportation by means of shaded lines, widths proportional to number of passengers (Henry Drury Harness, Ireland).

In 1960, William Fetter (a graphic designer for Boeing Aircraft Co.) coined the phrase "Computer Graphics."

In 1967, Steven Coons (MIT) has presented mathematical foundations for what eventually became the standard way to represent surfaces in computer graphics software: "His technique for describing a surface was to construct it out of collections of adjacent patches, which had continuity constraints that would allow surfaces to have curvature which was expected by the designer."

From Steven A. Coons, Surfaces for Computer-Aided Design of Space Forms, MIT/LCS/TR-41, June 1967.

When design, media, and architecture fields adopted software in the 1990s, this led to an aesthetic and intellectual revolution. Visually and spatially, smooth curves and freeform surfaces have emerged as the new expressive language for the globalized networked word where the only constant is the rapid change.

kovac architecture | proposal for world trade center, New York | 2002

MAD architects | Danish Pavillion (villa) | 2006.

Zaha Hadid | Abu Dhabi Performance Arts Center, UAE | 2007.

MRGD | Urban Lobby | 2008.

The modernist aesthetics of the discreteness and simplicity was replaced by info-aesthetics of continuity and complexity:

Le Corbusier | Villa Savoye, Poissy-sur-Seine, France | 1929-30.

Frank Gerhy | Walt Disney Concert Hall. Los Angeles. Design: 1991. Completed: 2003.

Intellectually, architectural discourse came to be dominated by concepts and terms which parallel (or directly come from) the design elements (splines, NURB surfaces, particle systems) and operations offered by the software (working with flexible geometry, morphing, physically-based modeling and simulation, parametric design, particle systems, simulation of natural phenomena, AL, etc):

Zaha Hadid | London | design for Contemporary Art Center in Rome (currently in construction): "The Campus is organized and navigated on the basis of directional drifts and the distribution of densities rather than the key points. This is indicative of the character of the Centre as a whole: porous, immersive, a field space."

R&Sie| Francois Roche, Stéphanie Lavaux | Paris | Frédéric Migayrou on R&Sie: "Scenarios of hybridization, grafting, cloning, morphing give rise to perpetual transformation of architecture which strives to break down the antinomies of object/subject or object/territory."

MRGD | Melike Altinisik, Samer Chaumoun, Daniel Widrig | Urban Lobby (research for a speculative redevelopment of the Centre Point office tower in central London) | "Fuzzy logic thinking is another step of helping human thought to recognize our environment less as a world of crisp boundaries and disconnections and more as a field of swarming agents with blurred borders. EMERGED is investigating the potential of fuzzy logic as a loose-fit organizational technique for developing intelligent, flexible and adaptive environments. Seeing the project as a testing ground for its computational tools and design techniques, the team expands its research territory from focusing and systemizing the dynamic hair tool as generative design machine to a larger scale, involving therefore levels of social, cultural and global organizations."

(For a list of of the architects who played the key role in developing software-enabled "non-standard architecture," see Non standard architecture and Non standard practice.)

In effect, the language of computer graphics has become the language of contemporary design and architecture - as well as the inspiration for architectural discourse about buildings, cities, space, and social life.

If architects adopted the techniques of computer graphics as theoretical terms to talk about their own field, we propose to do the same for all cultural fields. However, rather than only using these terms as metaphors, we also propose to visualize cultural processes using the same techniques.

The time has come to align our models and presentations of cultural process with the new design language and theoretical ideas made possible (or inspired) by software. For example, what will happen if we start conceptualizing and visualizing cultural phenomena and processes in terms of continuously changing parameters - as opposed to categorical boxes standard today?

Just as software substituted the older Platonic design primitives with new primitives (curves, flexible surfaces, particle fields) we propose to replace the traditional "cultural theory primitives" by the new ones. A 1D timeline becomes a 2D or 3D graph; a small set of discrete categorical boxes is discarded in favor of curves, freeform 3D surfaces, particle fields, and other representations available in design and visualization software.

First steps: examples of culture visualizations being produced in our lab, Fall 2008:

Development of modernism | The graph produced by doing automatic analysis of a sample data set of 35 canonical art history images - from Courbet (1849) to Malevich (1914).

Temporal analysis of video for "Go" by Common (first 30 sec) | The surface is produced through automatic analysis of every frame.

Contemporary progressive architecture is inspiring our research in visualizing patterns in cultural data sets also in another way. Pioneering architects such as Rem Koolhaus/OMA, UN Studio and others have been rethinking traditional typologies of a museum and exhibition gallery. Some of Rem Koolhaus/OMA museum proposals explore new ways to organize to spatialize museums collections. For example, the winning (but not realized) proposal for LACMA extension (Los Angeles, 2001) creates a new circulation scheme to allow visitors navigate "the history of art" in multiple ways:

"Imagine an almost Utopian condition where the history of the arts can be told as a single and simultaneous narrative showing moments of chronological coincidence, autonomy, influence and convergence...Our proposal consolidates the collections into a whole, instead of a series of pavillions. It creates the opportunity for multiple paths, manifold interpretations and cross-curatorial exhibits within a single entity."

UN Studio. Design for the group exhibition Ben van Berkel & the Theatre of Immanence (Frankfurt, 2007.)

Use of diagrams and information visualization to analyze the spatial conditions and programs - pioneered by the same Koolhaus and UN Studio and now common in architectural research - also serves as a catalyst for our research.