Notes on

New Design Thinking: Aesthetics and Constraints

Efilena Baseta

[Text nur in englischer Sprache]


The built environment is a necessity for sheltering and protecting humans from nature. In the next 30 years, the built floor area will need to be doubled compared to today’s. However, the construction industry cannot cope with that demand, perhaps primarily due to its marginal profit of just 1-2%. This low profit margin has prevented the aforementioned industry from developing R&D and becoming more efficient. One of the reasons for the crisis of the construction industry is that there is a big discrepancy between the planning and the realization. Thus, better planning is needed in order to increase profit. In this manner, the profit can be invested to increase the quality of the construction and prevent its catastrophic consequences, such as the irresponsible use of materials (e.g. the stock of sand is finishing), which has evident percussions on the physical environment. To change the established construction processes, our way of thinking needs to change!

Digitalization has played a leading role in improving the way we build. In particular, the integration of computation in the design process can increase the efficiency of the planning phase, by decreasing the design time and predicting the costs easier and more precisely. In addition, materials can be used in a more considerate manner, since new digital tools allow for optimizations and simulations during both the design and the construction phase. All in all, with the use of digital tools more sophisticated solutions are possible (e. g. new form-finding methods, performance simulations).

The rise of digital tools has also changed the design processes and the role of the architect. There are more and more examples of generative design (design which emerges through algorithms) and data-based design is also emerging. The architect searches for numerical data to input in his algorithms in order to output an optimized design solution. Other state-of-the-art design processes are the ones using artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence algorithms are fed with a large amount of data and after a learning process the computer outputs new results based on the initial inputs. When such algorithms are implemented in an architectural context they can revolutionize the field since the accumulation and reuse of old knowledge can bring new intuitions and emotions.

Another advantage of digitalization is that it simplifies communication between various disciplines. Not because of the existence of a common language, given that currently there are many computer languages, but because of the automated processes that are enabled through digital tools and are easier to be understood by a bigger audience. However, the automated processes can lead to lesser understanding of design problems in the younger generations. Commonly, digital tools can output a design solution with very little input. In this case, computation is not able to capture the sensitivities of the designer. For this reason, white-box approaches, where the user is able to intervene and understand the causal relation between parameters and results, are preferable. Computation has success only when it does not substitute the designer, but instead it augments his/her capabilities. The risk of reducing basic knowledge due to full automation can be prevented through educational processes customized to the digital era. In particular, embedding artistic processes into architectural design can help overcome this problem.

According to Google, “Arts is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Aesthetical values in the built environment play a very important role in society since it surrounds our everyday lives and defines our lifestyles; from our homes to our school and workplaces, and most importantly the public space, architecture shapes our personalities. Many examples of buildings with artistic values made by Starchitects, prove the importance of good aesthetics. However, the expression of emotions should be accompanied by the consideration of pragmatic problems. There is an urgency of architecture to be pragmatic! An example can be given from the construction of the headquarters of Google in London. If the architects had repositioned the elevator shafts by about 10 cm they would have been able to prefabricate over 90% of the building, instead of around 60%, and thus tremendously reduce the construction costs and time.

From the aforementioned example, it is evident that to create a more sustainable future for the built environment architects need to learn to design for constraints. But it should not be only that; constraints should be complemented by aesthetics! In this case, computation could be used as a tool to balance constrained systems and as a mediator that adds extra aesthetic qualities, always combined with a strong human critical thinking.


[This article is based on a discussion with Philippe Block (ETH)]


Left: Construction prototype detail for ultra thin concrete roof as part of the NEST HiLo project of the Block Research Group, ETH Zurich; Right: Detail of robotically 3D printed concrete artifact as part of the seminar “Digital Design and Full Scale Fabrication 2019” (tutors: Andrei Gheorghe, Efilena Baseta, Jan Kováříček), University of Applied Arts Vienna in collaboration with the Academy of Arts Berlin

*1987 in Athen, lives in Wien

Efilena Baseta is an Architect Engineer (NTUA) with a Master in Advanced Architecture (IAAC) and holds a Technical Doctorate from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, on the topic of transformable structures. Since 2014 Efilena is a co-founding partner of Noumena, a multidisciplinary practice which merges computational strategies with advanced manufacturing techniques for the digitalization of design processes. She has designed and coordinated ‘Advanced Construction’ exhibitions and has led various educational programs internationally. Additionally, in 2015-16 she was the coordinator of the IAAC Visiting Programs. In 2014 she received the “Innovative Structure” award by IAAC and in 2018 the Autodesk Emerging Research award. During 2016-18, Efilena was a Marie-Curie researcher. She is currently a computational designer at the Vienna based architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au.

Berlin Fellowship

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