Brute Force Architecture and its Discontents
“Globalization destabilizes and redefines both the way architecture is produced and that which architecture produces.”
— Rem Koolhaas, Globalization, S,M,L,XL
Originally published 2012.
Your lungs are full of foam fumes, your eyes are bloodshot from exhaustion, you’ve slept at your desk. But you stick with it, because you enjoy a pleasing degree of freedom to pursue design ideas that challenge accepted reason, so long as the lead designer sees something they like. Sound familiar?
If so, it’s likely that you work in one of the many global architecture offices who practice in the style of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The output of your work may look different, but the operation follows a similar logic.
Amongst the most critically acclaimed offices of the last two decades, OMA has consistently produced innovate architectural ideas, methods, and as we will see below, organizational models. This much is undeniable. The question at hand is whether the almost contagious ability of OMA to replicate itself in the habits of other offices is the result of duplication by admiration, a legitimate response to the challenges of globalized architecture practice (which OMA may have pioneered), or the charismatic quirk of OMA’s success overshadowing other possibilities.
This essay is written without any direct knowledge of the inner workings of the offices in question. It’s largely a mythology of the habits of organization, production, and decision making that one office has pursued. It has been written from the outside and aided by accumulated anecdotes.
If the OMA style of working has become a popular drug, this is an attempt to figure out what we’re all taking, why, and what other options may exist. It’s a story that begins in the British countryside 39 years before the founding of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
Half way between the brain trusts of Cambridge and Oxford sits Bletchley Park, a spunky but anonymous building that came to house one of the most important British installments of World War II. Inside, a team of scientists and mathematicians were focused on breaking the codes that the Germans used to protect their communications from the prying eyes and ears of the Allies. With some of the brightest minds in the country assembled, the task was difficult enough to still evade them, leaving the Allies no choice but to employ a technique called brute force code breaking.
When a message is encrypted one must have the password — or cipher — to decrypt the message from a jumble of nonsense into legible text. The right password returns sensible text, while the wrong password merely turns gibberish into a different kind of equally useless gibberish. If one cannot obtain the cipher they must devise a way to get it. In other words, if you can’t find the right password, another way to break through is by trying every… single… one… of the wrong possible passwords until you’re left with the single, correct option. Those at Bletchley and others in the community of cryptographers call this a brute force attack.
A young mathematician named of Alan Turing was working on a bruce force code cracking machine called the Bombe. It was like playing a game of “guess what word I’m thinking of” by starting on word one, page one of a dictionary and going from there. Except in the case of the Turing’s team their dictionary had up to 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 ‘words’ that had to be tested before the right answer could be found.
When it’s not possible to intelligently find a flaw in the algorithm used to encode the message, the brute force attacker simply tries every possible option until one proves useful. It’s the same technique that lends hackers access to email accounts today: attempt millions of different passwords and one is bound to work. This is why banks and other sensitive sources encourage the use of c0mpLic4t3d! passwords. Each extra letter, number, or punctuation mark expands the possible number of combinations, or “search space”, and makes the password exponentially harder to guess.
As the name implies, brute force attacks are uncomplicated and rely on the most basic ability of the computer to do repetitive tasks ad nauseam without stepping out for a smoke. The faster all the wrong answers can be eliminated, the sooner the correct cipher will be revealed. Two variables determine the speed that a cipher will be broken: the time it takes for each break attempt, and the number of attempts you can make simultaneously. The latter is akin to dividing up the dictionary into sections A-H, I-N, O-Z and giving them to three people to work on at the same time. Parallel processing only works in situations where the overall task can be neatly divided and the piecemeal portions worked on in isolation of each other. Computing possible passwords is easily divisible into separate tasks to be done in parallel, but imagine using the same approach on something like poetry.
Decades after WWII ended, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) brought together innovations in drawing and model making techniques and a new theoretical understanding of architecture to create a production process for architecture that unlocked an uncanny level of efficiency not too different from the brute force approach employed by Turing and others who made Bletchley Park a famous mansion of mathematics.
OMA has been one of the most consistently interesting offices during the past couple decades but we’re more concerned with the how than the what. In probing these depths we want to gain a more sophisticated understand of this engine of success, and perhaps discover some ways in which the downsides may be minimized without losing the potency of its output.
Keeping everything in play
Lesson number 36: Abstraction is a requirement for design because you just can’t take everything into account.
— OMA Progress exhibition pamphlet, curated by Rotor
Architecture can be a hard thing to discuss because it’s an art of integration. The difficulty of separating the overall design task into smaller units of work is at least part of the reason that the stereotype of the architect is one of obsessive detail-oriented control, the Maestro, the creative genius. The lead designer is often one of the only people privy to the way that all of the cumulative decisions in a project come together; seeing, as it were, the many narrowly avoided conflicts that any matter battle is riddled with.
The factors that go into an architectural proposition run the gamut from calculable aspects such as structural performance under gravity loads, financial constraints under a given budget, and the practical realities of human ergonomics, as much as they rely on the cultural and symbolic meaning of forms and materials. And this is before you consider the individual whims of the client. Looking at any of these elements in complete isolation leads to woes later in the process, yet integrating all of them all of the time leads to paralysis.
The design process in most offices follows a general progression. It starts with a prompt or brief, expands into a wide range of possible responses to the brief, narrows in on one or two promising options for further refinement, and eventually results in a singular option that is finally realized. At the beginning a lead designer offers their team a design question. These are different in each office but include things such as, “how should this building sit on the site” or “how will people move around this structure” and the team work as individuals to sketch a variety of proposals that answer the question. This basic process is repeated again and again at successive levels of detail until the ‘scheme’ for the entire building has been resolved and can be drawn up as construction documents.
In architecture offices that discuss design proposals as integrated and holistic, these design cycles are drawn out into discussions can take a long time because even the smallest detail, such as a handrail, must be coherent with the logic that defines the whole building. Think of Horta’s stair railings or Frank Lloyd Wright’s lighting designs, both microcosms of the overall structure they exist within. The detail cannot be designed without an idea of the whole, and the whole cannot exist without details that support it.
Idea generation and evaluation phases tend to be less distinct in these kinds of offices, as there is an ongoing dialog among colleagues about whether a particular design tactic is appropriate to the project, and to the office’s work in general. Such discussions are often lengthy and full of nuance, consideration, and coffee breaks. It’s a perfectly good model, but it’s one that works best when everyone on the team share a similar level of acumen and are present for the full duration of the design process — if possible in the same room. This is the classic mode of the design atelier complete with a strong-willed lead designer at the helm. Ideas flow from a singular genius (Horta, Wright, Hadid) with the aid of nimble and numerous assistants.
OMA’s invention was to turn lead designers into grand editors. For an office who had global aspirations and highly mobile directors, a more efficient way of working was needed that would allow idea generation phases to happen without extensive indoctrination of young designers to the office’s philosophy and stylistic interests, and without constant supervision by frenetic leaders.
The firm’s breakthrough came in the writing of Rem Koolhaas. Initially as analytical observations in Delirious New York and later in a theoretical essay entitled Bigness, Koolhaas describes buildings as related collections of ideas rather than integrated wholes. If previously a building’s outside and inside were meant to add up to one coherent thing, in Koolhaas’ logic they are free to be separate, each with their own logics. This essential cleavage was levied against all aspects of the building.
With the old model of seeing a building as one integrated design task now shattered, the building could be understood as a family of many individual tasks. Under this new model, multiple design questions at different scales could be pursued in parallel.
The Dis-integrated building
“Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.”
— Rem Koolhaas, Bigness essay in S,M,L,XL
Although post modernism had already legitimized the collage aesthetic that this approach encourages, Koolhaas’ writing made it OK for designers — especially those in his office — to treat the design of a building as many separate, smaller design tasks and the outcome of each did not necessarily need to bear clear resemblance to the others. On the contrary, buildings that displayed multiple ideas, forms, and materials became central to the aesthetic of OMA.
Koolhaas’ radically dis-integrated approach to architecture is known as a theoretical position, but it also creates very real advantages from the perspective of managing the labor of a design firm. When a collage is the desirable outcome, junior designers are relieved from having to understand the full nuance of the overall project and the lead designer is freed from the burden of providing constant ongoing feedback to keep their team on track with towards a priori big picture. Instead, feedback need be applied only at specific points (such as internal reviews) where a range of options are evaluated for their intrinsic value more than than their appropriateness to an external, overriding logic. In this operational model the lead designer need not play the role of Maestro driving everyone towards a known goal. Rather, they initiate the design process with a provocation and continually curate the results.
With the theoretical means to suspend disbelief during generative phases of idea generation, the individuals on a design team were free to go wild. If the review after a period of wild design proposals did not yield anything satisfactory the process could be repeated again. And again. And again until something useful came out, in much the same way the crew at Bletchley Park sought the correct ciphers.
The phases of production and evaluation were allowed to become distinct and extreme. Production phases could involve maximum divergence, and evaluations could be viciously binary. Here we find the basic mechanism of brute force hacking: find success by exhausting failure. As many former employees could tell you, it could also be the motto of OMA (and the many offices that now use its model).
The quicker a yes/no decision could be made, the quicker the search space of answers to a given design problem could be iterated through by a group of young designers, even if they were to be working almost at random. But how to accelerate this process even further?
New and faster ways to evaluate architectural proposals were needed, namely new means of drawing and model making that shortened the time it required to definitively say yes or no. The answer was blue foam.
OMA is famous for its use of blue foam as a model making material, a technique that uses polystyrene foam cut into desired shapes with a heated wire. Working with foam is a skill that one learns relatively quickly and it allows quick and easy iterations that would be more time consuming to achieve in cardboard. For instance, making a cube from foam can be done with as few as two or three cuts. The same shape out of cardboard would require 24 cuts and the gluing of 6 pieces. Whereas working with cardboard requires planning ahead and some translation of ideas into a workflow of making, with foam the workflow and ideas are collapsed into one. Making is thinking, as Albena Yaneva has written about.
One can picture the spark that must have lit up in the eye of a young model maker as their tired fingers parted with a bright yellow Olfa knife and embraced the electrically charged wire of a foam cutter, slicing effortlessly through a block of cool blue foam for the first time.
Working with foam instead of more traditional materials allowed the design teams at OMA to model their ideas quicker, which in turn allowed more ideas to be considered in the same span of time. The adoption of this new technique was akin to upgrading the processor speed of the office.
More so than cardboard or other model making materials, blue foam erases the signature of its creator, which allows for an easier ‘apples to apples’ comparison. The anonymizing uniformity of the cut surfaces and alien blueness of the foam itself allows multiple workers to prepare options in parallel while minimizing the differences of personal craft. The cumulative effect means that a table covered in foam models all produced by different individuals can be assessed for their ideas rather than the quirks of who made them or how they were created. What’s on display are the ideas themselves, without any distracting metadata or decoration. This is the model making equivalent of Edward Tufte’s quest to eliminate chartjunk.
With extraneous degrees of difference eliminated from the process, the signal to noise ratio of the discussion could be as high as possible. Under these conditions the person making a decision is set up to compare and execute quickly—to edit quickly. Once a promising option is chosen, the team can quickly produce an entirely new table of variations based on that as a starting point. The time required for each cycle of development is reduced as much as possible such that a maximum number of iterations are seen, tested, and discarded on the way to finalizing a design proposal.
What blue foam did for model making, the diagram did for drawings. Traditional architectural drawings are laden with detail whereas the diagram is all punch. Favoring diagrams over more traditional means of plans and sections, even in sketch form, allows for the essence of an idea to be transmitted in as compact a form as possible so that it can be iterated as quickly as possible.
This is the essence of brute force architecture. To test and discard as many ideas, produced as quickly as possible, is a luxury that is only afforded to an office that has the following:
- A theoretical framework allowing design tasks to be simplified and separated (Bigness);
- The right tools to do so (foam and diagrams);
- A large pool of able and willing hands to put those tools in motion.
Geography, language, labor, and practice
Thanks to the clarity of roles, the relative degrees of freedom afforded to junior designers, and the reining effect of the blue foam and diagram tactics, brute force architecture is a mode of working that is more resilient to participants coming and going. OMA’s office in Rotterdam could be humming with proposals for the facade of a hotel in Manhattan while Koolhaas was lecturing in Seoul, without being impeded by the low bandwidth media of international telephone calls and grainy intercontinental facsimiles. Importantly—and impressively—the media of decision making was already so compressed that it could survive even the most dreadful of landline connections and thermal paper.
OMA is famous for two things: its astounding output, and the extent to which its operations chew through the majority of the human capital that walks through its doors. As an office that had already made a name for itself and was lucky to enjoy a steady flow of applications from aspiring young interns, OMA could organize around a workflow that depended on the maximum variety and quantity of design explorations before electing one to carry forward. Like Turing 60 years prior, OMA’s operations are based on brute forcing through the search space. Whereas Turing relied on something that would later come to be known as computing power, OMA relies on employees who willfully work long hours.
The maximum variety seen in OMA’s work is the direct output of the bloodshot eyes and over-caffeinated bodies of the legion workforce pushing themselves to create just a few more iterations before calling it quits. Now taking advantage of the very globalized condition that brought it into being, the diversity of the individuals in the office (nationality, language, design background) further enhance the spread of the collective design iterations they churn through, effectively expanding the ability of the machine to exhaust possibilities at an accelerated pace.
The simplification of the way in which ideas are presented through models and diagrams smooths over the difficulties of running an office with many different mother tongues by giving preference to image over language, in effect turning a potential hurdle into a mechanism to bolster the brute force production system.
The sum of this way of working is one where the search space of ideas is exhausted seconds before the individuals doing the searching. If so, success has been achieved. If not, the office collapses under its own entropy. So far OMA has been able to keep the lights on but at significant human cost, particularly to the lower ranks who put the “brute” in “brute force”.
OMA has been singled out because their contribution has been so definitive to the last couple generations of professional practice. Although the offices of Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, and others are on similar or perhaps even higher levels of success in terms of productive output, none have had as large an impact on the practice of architecture as OMA. None have as many acolytes and offshoots as OMA.
From the point of view of architectural practice, the dominant story at the beginning of the 21st century was the OMA-ification of practice. It’s hard to walk through an office nowadays without feeling some shadow of OMA. If not the obsessive model making, then the diagrammatic drawings as idea telegrams. If not the masses of interns, the hands-off yes/no interaction between junior employee and lead designer. Beyond these high level similarities, the specific tactics of OMA are contagious: sections with oversized text stuffed into different programmatic zones, barcode diagrams, unrolled plans, renderings collaged with glib inhabitants, and so forth. OMA is one of the few offices that consistently invents new representational ideas alongside new architectural ideas.
The pervasiveness of OMA’s habits in other offices are so extreme that one is tempted to ask whether this way of working is a logical outcome of globalized practice, but the dearth of competing operational models hints that perhaps this is not the case. At a moment when formal, tectonic, and material diversity are at the extreme, we as a community of architects lack a healthy discussion of operational models. OMA’s model trundled into a second generation with firms such as MVRDV, BIG, and REX but who else has recently proposed an idea about how to operate an architecture firm that is both novel and coherent?
Yes, there is interest in potential futures for architecture as a discipline, and this is incredibly important work, but there remains room for innovation in the most traditional of practices. How else might the idea of an office that designs and oversees the construction of buildings be articulated in a way that’s relevant to a global market, and able to survive its wiles? The search space for ways of working hardly seems exhausted, so what’s next?
When thinking about the future of practice after Brute Force, one wonders what models we may employ to develop not only the next generation of architectural ideas, but the next generation of architectural offices as well.
How does an office represent ideas to itself? How do they evaluate proposals as fast as possible? How does an office continually challenge itself by entertaining the most divergent set of propositions it can muster? What mechanisms does an office use to know when they are producing good work?
In a way, these are the easy questions. Or at least the ones that architects and designers have battled with implicitly for centuries. The challenge that will define the next generation of architecture is one of organization and operation. How do offices effectively divide tasks? How do they honor a commitment to both community and client? How do they contribute both hard and soft value to the world?
New models of organizing work, new business models, new income streams, and new value propositions are the rich territory for tomorrow’s architects to figure out. As the global market struggles with deleveraging, architecture’s connection to the real economy is an asset waiting to be articulated.
Those who dare to do so assume all the risk of taking the leap away the dissatisfying-but-known practice of brute force architecture. If they’re lucky, and if we’re lucky, a few will land on solid ground.