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Antonino Saggio

Michael Leyton
"Shape as Memory. A Geometric Theory of Architecture"
(IT Revolution in Architecture)
Birkhäuser 2006
pp96, $18,95
preface by Antonino Saggio

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[in italiano]


History, which we Italians are so interested in, and whose relation with design we have studied so intensely - just what relation does history have with computers? This is an apparently absurd question, but Michael Leyton answers it in this book. Let's take things one step at a time. As you know, the great Italian architectural historian Bruno Zevi has always vehemently defended two theses. The first is that history is at the center of architectural activity. Zevi's view of history was a "critical" vision that emphasized the moments of change, the capacity to work within crises to formulate new hypotheses. His history was "non-" encyclopedic, "non-" philological; it was a history of architecture formed by successive breaks, by "heresies." It was, therefore, both a "counter-history" and a "constant" history of modernity. Zevi's second fundamental thesis was the construction of a series of invariants like the "elenco", overhanging structures, four-dimensional compositions and more. The invariants represented a series of transcendental values which were implicitly open and dynamic in their essence, which opposed academic rules.

Zevi abhorred the static nature of forms, symmetry, the golden rules of proportion, the schema of treaty, manual and positivist typologies. Up until now, these two theses, the centrality of the "critical" idea of history and the "dynamic" invariants, have lacked a conclusive connection tying the one to the other. This connection has finally been provided by Michael Leyton, who explains in an incontrovertible manner that symmetry simultaneously kills both history and form! Leyton is a prolific author of scientific texts for publishers like The MIT Press and Springler; he is also a musician, a painter and a designer. But above all, he is a scholar who has codified a new way of thinking in this book. This is a new formalism. And the adjective "new," when dealing with formalism, is not a word to be used lightly. The basis of Leyton's formalism is revolutionarily procedural in its nature. Let's try to understand how. Normally, a CAD (a program of the vector family which is now a part of every architect's computer) works on the "results." A CAD uses a series of lines of code to describe the geometric forms created on the screen; it describes geometry through formulas that are primarily based on two large geometric families: mesh triangulations –by which even a very complex form can be reduced to a series of triangles– and the spinline family, which organizes forms through sequences of mathematical equations. If the object that is to be described is simple, just a few lines of code are needed; a complex object will require a great number of lines of code.

The basic idea of Leyton's reasoning, which is presented in this book, is: let's change the way we do things! Instead of thinking about the results, describing them in a geometric manner, let's concentrate on the process. In one of Leyton's standard examples, take a piece of paper and crumple it up. The ensuing form is complex and, naturally, can be described and reproduced (with an enormous number of lines of code). But instead, think about creating a formalism based on the idea of process. In this case, to reproduce the form, I must simply say which force is to be applied on the specific "action" of crumpling. I therefore begin with a piece of paper and then apply the "formalism" of the act of crumpling it up. The rise of this procedural way of thinking has important implications. First of all, from a practical point of view. It is no coincidence that big companies like IBM are very interested in the theses that Leyton has formulated as the basis of new computer languages. But an impressive series of implications can also be had in the biological, medical, and physical sciences and, naturally, in architectural science as well. Leyton has also resolved other questions along the way, like the relation with Gestalt, finally explaining a few unresolved points.

Let's go back to the point that is so important to us architects, and which brings us back to the title of the book, Shape as Memory, and to Zevi's two theories. Imagine a face with wrinkles, imagine a car that has a scratch on its door: these grooves reveal a history. Then, imagine a car and a face without history, without those signs. This is the basis of this book. And its relevant thesis. Form is the result of history or, in other words, form is memory! A key aspect of this system is the various aspects of this work together. Symmetrical choices (static, typological, blocked) represent the negation of form, the idea of a form "with no history." This perfect, absolute ideal, which of course can be, as it has been, a pursued and a pursuable ideal, denies the very essence of form. So as Leyton says: Form is history: form is not just the conscious acceptance of crises, agitation, difficulties; form itself is history. History, through this new formalism, is rooted in the past, but above all, it is launched toward the future. Form becomes open to new actions, to new processes. Those like me, who have been brought up on Bruno Zevi's theories, find this logical connection exciting because this book backs it up with concise reasoning that is analytically incontrovertible. Michael Leyton's book opens a new, and perhaps difficult, way of dealing with the computer revolution. Michael, with the intuition of a genius, but also with the hard work of a scholar, tries a new pathway that can't not be listened to.

Antonino Saggio


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