Coffee Break


An intelligent model

Antonino Saggio

Mirko Galli / Claudia Mühlhoff
“Virtual Terragni, CAAD in Historical and Critical Research”
(The IT Revolution in Architecture) 
Switzerland 1999
pp96, $12.50
preface by Antonino Saggio

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[in italiano]

To make himself understood by the workers building the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, Brunelleschi sometimes went to the market to buy large turnips that he cut up, or also built wax or wooden models. When designing the Opera House, Jørn Utzon started with a sphere-orange from which he extracted the triangular segments-shells of the vaulted roof.

An extraordinary range of models has been and continues to be used by architects for their work. Today a new one is available: the computerised model. As has already been said, the world of computer science is a dynamic spider’s web. We can regroup information nuclei and structure them into a myriad of relationships. We can verify the changes to an entire system made by changing an atom or, by altering the meaning, order or pattern of connections, we can form whole new worlds. In terms of power, the computerised model of a building is not just a 3D construction that offers infinite viewpoints, as does a physical model, but it is a moving model, one that is interlinked and can be changed. Its data are interrelated according to the accepted scientific definition of "model" (mathematical, financial, physical, and statistical).

Nearly all CAAD programmes now allow a hierarchical structure to be created (variously known as symbol, type, object, etc.) which represents the possibility of creating the web, the quintessence of electronic design.

Let us try to understand this better. The horizontal organisation into transparent layers offered by all CAAD programmes has been developed from a traditional method of working. Leaving aside the advantages of electronic data management, the process of designing by means of layers does not extend traditional possibilities, but only makes them significantly more efficient. The real innovation occurs when we turn to the vertical (and hierarchical) structure. It is now possible to organise a project using an upside-down pyramid which, through combinations of increasingly complex sets of elements, creates an extremely flexible design environment with dynamic relationships between the data. By using simulation in these environments, it is possible to examine spatial layout and construction, functional and formal organisation, quantitative and economic aspects simultaneously. In this case, a CAAD project is much more than a model.

But now let us take a step backwards. What happens when we use this instrument to construct a network, a series of relationships in a building or in a project that has already been realized? This is the topic that this book aims to examine.

To start with, we reach a first, so-called easy level, which is readily understood but nonetheless decisive. Projects are often discovered, including major works, which have never been built. Seeing the Danteum or the Brera project, or the E42 competition by Terragni, realised during the course of the same experience at Zurich Polytechnic but not presented here, gives us a chance to study, examine, appreciate and criticise them in depth. Like a traditional physical model, the computer offers infinite viewpoints, but with a few key advantages: the possibility of exploring inside, now frequently in "real time", even using virtual reality simulation systems, and the extraordinary ability to transpose shots and views onto film.

It goes without saying that this form of construction requires care, cognitive attention and intelligent interpretation in exactly the same way as the construction of a traditional model.

This exercise can often be linked to a specific and original philological analysis. Mirko Galli’s study of Terragni’s commemorative projects is carried out with particular care. One need only consider the history, events and different versions of the projects for Roberto Sarfatti’s tomb to perceive Terragni’s research. I believe that this contribution, which differs diametrically from others on the same subject, will become a point of reference.

But while in all this the computer offers an eminently practical advantage (it is now easy to convert the electronic model back into a traditional model created using automatic cutting machines linked to the computer), the essential transition allowed by electronics is, as always, linked to the theme of dynamic interconnections.

A computerised model is a sort of intelligent model because it captures, condenses and organises information according to the cognitive and organisational structure of whoever builds it. The long hours taken to create it represent an important period of immersion: the lines and meaning of the project gradually take shape, the interrelations, the reasons, the structures become clear, hypotheses are thrown up in a constant interrogation between those involved: between the architect who designs the project and whoever is studying or reconstructing it.

All the models, images and texts in this book, even if simply descriptive at first sight, form part of this continuous interrogation. The key instrument for a dynamic and flexible model, and not just one that visualises, is represented by the technical instrument of Hierarchical Structures, but the categories to be examined are eminently formative (practicability, relations with the ground, the role of additional elements or the structure), in an attempt to find the most efficient means of understanding Terragni’s projects. This enables a multi-layer and multi-meaning interpretation of the models, opening up important analyses both within each particular work and extended in parallel to a series of works, as Claudia Mühlhoff does when she analyses four of Terragni’s houses simultaneously.

To sum up, these works present at least four levels that are worth emphasising:

1. a knowledge of works that are otherwise relatively unknown. These researchers have built architectural works that had often been left at the sketch stage, and they have produced highly reliable images.

2. an in-depth study, in Galli’s case, of the historiographical context of each project, carried out using first-hand research. This investigation has thrown new light on events that were previously unknown or had been poorly researched.

3. an operation of analytical disassembly and reassembly using significant categories in the design applied "horizontally" to the same project and "vertically" in the comparison of several projects.

4. a development of CAAD technologies in the hierarchical organisation of models. This has allowed simulation (including real-time exploration inside the work) and critical investigation to be incorporated in a single product. Moreover, it has allowed the model to be subsequently transposed from the PC to increasingly powerful machines for real-time simulation.

The field of simulation will be considerably enlarged by this work, not only because it enables the reconstruction of a reality or idea that has been lost, but which might be important or fertile, but it also provides a vast field of intellectual and compositive exploration. The meaning of the word "model" is revolutionised. It is no longer a perfect and static example to be copied, but a series of carefully predetermined relationships to be explored and understood anew.

Antonino Saggio

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