Building Integration Models (BIM), tend to establish uniformity through language by means of standards, metadata and object libraries. For SCI-Arc alumn Austin Lightle, this categorization prevents designers from understanding how fluid both the program and function of buildings actually are. Through his work, Austin explores what it means to “name” entities during the architectural design process, specifically when dealing with software and digital interfaces. Common Objects, a project that emerged from his master’s thesis, offers a novel way of looking at design, removing linguistic constraints and allowing for a user-centred, intuitive and collaborative digital environment.
KOOZ What prompted the project and your interest in the “Common Object”?
AL The interest for the project unfolded in two phases. First, through the exploration of objects in my undergraduate thesis and second, through the exploration of interfaces at SCI-Arc (a project developed with Devyn Weiser and Peter Testa). My interest in both topics is centred around the idea of language and naming, both in the way we name spaces and forms and in the way interfaces name commands and functions that relate to the way we design. An article by Perry Kulper titled “The Precision of Promiscuity” channelled my interest in language and architecture. Kulper talks about a synchronous program and form relationships that have developed in architecture by the way we name and categorise everything. Kulper refers to this as “The Naming Problem”. Architecture often begins with the commission of a program, which leads to preconceived notions of how it is assumed that a program should function. Hence, the name of the program begins to carry formal and functional connotations. Through interfaces, particularly that of the Building Integration Model (BIM), there is a desire for uniformity and efficiency. This methodology seeks to establish uniformity through language by the means of standards, metadata, object libraries with set functions and established conditions etc. BIM software allows the categorization of entire spaces into object libraries, problematically implying that we truly understand architecture’s programs and functions. As we have seen in the pandemic, spaces and the name of their program are constantly in flux.
My interest is centred around the idea of language and naming, both in the way we name spaces and forms and in the way interfaces name commands and functions that relate to the way we design.
KOOZ What questions does the project raise and which does it address?
AL My thesis rethinks the ways, means and language of architecture. I have prototyped a new interface that removes the standard workflow and traditional language. The interface focuses on the development of morphological objects through the spontaneous interpretations of the user. Empowering users through the interpretations of the same objects in new ways is based upon the medium and domain.
Common Objects begins with a speculative study on a series of objects based on architectural morphologies that I have developed. The objects follow a morphology but can be a part of different categories. The new catalogue of the objects is based on absurd categories with at best vague merit. The speculative stage of the interface allows for the objects to be explored before they receive their name, allowing for the function of the object to simultaneously be interpreted by the user. The interface has three distinct sections; an interaction between the object and found assets to understand its performative qualities, an interaction between the object and a digital double environment to understand its potential scale, and lastly an interaction between the object and phygital materials to understand the formal alterations made by the material and scale. After these tests, the object can then be developed into a programme and functional architecture with a new name and scale.
The speculative stage of the interface allows for the objects to be explored before they receive their name, allowing for the function of the object to simultaneously be interpreted by the user.
KOOZ In the context of “the current zeitgeist of architecture,” the project calls for the “re-examining of program and function.” Could you expand on how you understand notions of program and function within the architectural discourse and discipline?
AL Program and function remain in constant flux and can operate independently, which is something that needs to be explored. We can no longer pretend to definitively establish how a program should function spatially. Likewise, we can no longer view architecture as an authored field but rather a collaborative operation. A single architecture project must pass through multiple approval processes, industries, and regulations; all of which equally impact the project. The moment we begin to think that we have fully resolved a program and functions we are no longer exploring new ways of thinking unless forced (like a pandemic).
We can no longer view architecture as an authored field but rather a collaborative operation.
KOOZ The project is developed as an interface that seeks to explore morphological objects and their performance; not through a discovery of their meaning, but through spontaneous interpretation that is unique to the user. How does the project seek to achieve this? What drew you to the design of an interface as a tool for this discovery?
AL The interface begins with a collection of morphological objects because morphologies can exist outside of scale and context, they are defined by their performative qualities. They can also be vaguely categorised such as objects that accommodate things, objects that can measure, objects that can partition or assemble, objects that can do this or that, objects that can support things and objects that can proportion things.
The interface first allows for each object to be contextualised with found digital assets. Allowing for the performative qualities of the object to be read both at the micro and macro scale simultaneously and interpreted differently by each user. Then, the objects are cycled through multiple digital double environments, that is, a combination of the interface engaging with the scene as a 3D element instead of a 2D overlay. Furthermore, the object can begin to take on physical properties through materials that are both a blend of the digital and physical, or phygital for short. These phygital materials are more than simply an image map but carry dynamic physics-based features that alter the object and its function. Finally, each user has the ability to tailor and develop each object once they have decided on the digital double environment, at this point they can begin to name the project. Through this interface, the objects were developed into architectural spaces without having to be initially named, allowing for the user to develop the space with no preconceived notions.
I am interested in this exchange of an object that can go back and forth between the digital and physical.
KOOZ The project exists at the intersection between the physical and the digital environment to give new meaning to the common objects. What are the opportunities offered by these new hybrid spaces?
AL Software such as Revit has already begun to work with digital double models. An object library consists of digitally modelled physical components with set functions. Additionally, there are digital models that receive real time feedback from its physical counterpart. I am interested in this exchange of an object that can go back and forth between the digital and physical. Allowing for a physical piece to exist, but simultaneously having a digital model that can further be explored for new potentials. The digital double model is a way of dealing with architecture’s nature of remaining in a constant state of flux. It does not simply see the physical a finished entity, but just the step of a process that is still yet to be explored.
Metaverses are powered through real-time rendering engines, each with their own long list of limitations.
KOOZ In your opinion and as an architect, what are the greatest challenges and opportunities offered by the designing of spaces within the metaverse?
AL I believe the metaverse is vaunted in architecture because it can be seen as a scapegoat for real design problems. The metaverse is often seen as a limitless environment of newfound potentials, but it is not that simple. It is a concept that has been in development since the early 90s, so it is not something that is new and limitless. There is a long history that needs to be understood before we can really comprehend its impact. Metaverses are powered through real-time rendering engines, each with their own long list of limitations. Each engine will have its own limitations on texture steam, mesh density, point counts, simulation, physics-based dynamics, real time alterations etc. Meaning that the architecture itself is far from limitless but still quite contained. That said, I do believe there are explorations and contributions to architecture that can be made through a metaverse platform, especially through the idea of developing an architecture project as an avatar inside of a new world, the idea of watching yourself work can lead to a real-life adaptation of an architectural project. So, I do believe there is potential there, but they must go deeper than treating it as a way for architecture to exist “limitlessly”.
Austin Lightle studied at Ohio State University where he received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture. He graduated in the spring of 2019 with Architectural Honors, Research Distinctions, and Magna Cum Laude. He went on to work for Pelli Clarke & Associates in New Haven, Connecticut. After working a year at Pelli, he went into the M Arch II program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture to continue his exploration of architecture through new mediums. While at Sci-Arc, he expanded his interest into interfaces and the standard language we use around architecture and the impact it has on the way we associate programs and forms. His thesis, Common Objects, was awarded the Peer Prize and Merit Prize. Austin currently resides in Los Angeles, California where he works as a designer in an architectural office and as a freelance animation artist. He also is faculty at Sci-Arc where he teaches with Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser.