natural purpose, digital design, and reflective engagements

‘Why not ...first to find out where the
stranger in natural science, the concept of
natural purposes, may lead us? ‘
‐ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment 301.
Within the discipline of architecture, natural is a persistent term which, through its history of redefinition, has acquired the potential to relocate the designed.1 The term identifies challenges to architectural practice, describes production, and situates the architectural object. In a strange parallel, digital design is currently asserting the same potential to induce “the transformation of the meaning of the architectural object”.2 This paper examines the current relationship between nature and the architectural object as mediated by digital design processes towards a speculation on user inhabitation of so designed space.

It infers that the broad theological framework that has been the unifying ground for theoreticians with respect to computer‐aided design practices – Deleuzian material theory – is insufficient when it comes to understanding the new blurring of distinction between natural and designed, and that this dependency is robbing digital design of its experiential potentials.3 The need to reconcile the virtual architectural object with the real architectural object transcends theoretical discussion hinging on form‐based discussions and the nature of the computer design environment, without rejecting the importance of such interrogation. Formal emphasis produces architectural space that represses the user’s sense‐based experience. Current oppositions to formalist architecture through digital design, such as Greg Lynn’s Animate Form, highlight a tendency to resolve issues through time‐based discussions, excluding space.4

Neo‐Kantian interpretations will provide as an alternate framework to disrupt the determinism underpinned formalism. While Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason appears to endorse formalist architectural space as emphasised by digital methodologies, the later Critique of Judgement – with particular reference to the treatises on Natural Purpose and Reflective Judgment ‐ can provide an examination of embodied space.5 The Critique of Judgment is a fertile architectural text due to its capacity to force out relations between theory and action.6 Setting up a Kantian interrogation allows the paper to formatively straddle broader architectural  questions of nature, aesthetics, surface/structure, metaphysics, sublime, and immateriality.



Underlying the discussion are two propositions: first, Kant’s Natural Purpose produces an indeterminate, self‐organised organism of digital design processes which is an embodied spatial system and second; this embodied spatial thinking enables a reflective re‐reading of digital space. This paper thus begins with an  examination of the historic relationship of nature and the designed and develops into a reading of Kantian Natural Purposes with relation to process and aesthetic output of digital design practice. I argue that Kant’s  natural Purpose enables interrogation of technical systems and aesthetic outputs, especially with respect to the role of the individuated architect and the user capable of reflective judgement of design. I then consider the  potential for Kant’s theories to reconnect the digital architectural organism and the embodied real object through the activities of the reflective user in respect of Jonathan Hill’s Creative User.

The philosophy of nature can be traced to two major metaphysical writings: Plato’s Theory of Ideas and Aristotle’s conception of the real as ‘being in a process of becoming.’7 The natural is thus situated beside conceptualisation of the real and of the living8. Under Aristotelian rules, the real is synonymous with the natural and exists in two senses: firstly, as nothing but the product of an evolutionary self‐organising process of matter and from; and secondly, as anything which is the product of an encounter, anything observed.9 Kant’s treatise on Natural Purposes is primarily concerned with interrogating of the relationship of these two
senses. Traditional readings of Kant privilege the Critique of Reason as it highlights the latter definitional
sense of nature as “anything observed,” thus underscoring Aesthetic Theory. Historically, the architectural
object has been located in contention with this conception of nature, despite asking to be conceptualised in
the very same manner.10 In order to assert its own realness, architecture looked to overpower and reinstate
nature as the “liminal, the boundary definition”. 11 This demarcation of nature as other preoccupied the
Enlightenment and still acts as a stabilising theme in architectural lineage.



A second location of the architectural object in relation to observable nature put forward by the Romantic
Movement positioned architecture as a mediator for movement between self and nature; a perpetrator of the ‘sublime’. 12 Inherent in the suggestion that architecture can provide a frame for the apprehension of nature is the institution of nature as other, an institution which was further engrained through modernist promotion of the machine as a metaphor for architecture, a model in which nature was deliberately repressed.13


Responding to this, De‐constructivists suggested that the fundamental binary difference between nature and culture (architecture) was irrelevant and displaced. Through an exploration of their inversions, terms are shown to erase their differences from one another, and are thus read as displacements of each other.14 Out
of this perceived displacement arose a new challenge to tame technology. This secondary displacement of the term nature by the term technology destabilised architecture’s place opposite nature. For the first time, natural and technological were aligned. The question now, as posed by Mugerauer, was ‘What do buildings and reality have to do with each other now?’15


The link between the interdependent dialectic pairs of terms “natural and artifice” and “real and virtual” was not so easily displaced. What de‐constructivist displacement did not infer was compatibility. The emergence of computer graphics and computer‐aided design systems in the latter half of the twentieth century led to a consuming computerisation of architectural design processes which has further aligned architecture with the virtual, repressing nature once more. The question of the compatibility between nature, artificiality and conventional technology remains uneasy.16


To assert a radical break with the history of the discipline, the terms of nature theory itself must be displaced. Currents terminology of sustainable and eco architectures replace nature with the false synonym of landscape, which externalises nature from architecture as ‘something animate and powerful which is to be respected.’17 Traditional models of nature are subsumed into more advanced models of dynamic flow systems. This  emphasis and the formal and typological discussion characteristic of digital design theory place nature curiously at both the forefront of architectural discourse, and in a state of exclusion. Understandings of nature as a system tied to the divergence of the terms natural and real is outweighed. By arguing that the natural exists latently in all architecture design processes and systems, one can resituate the architecture discourse. Digital design thus becomes a ‘method for acting on the relationship between two terms, nature and artifice.’18


Kant’s Critique of Judgment affords to this contemporary situation an explicit mode of engaging with the relation of design and nature.19 Through Natural Purpose he proposes a nuanced duality to metaphysical existence. Underpinning this proposition is the Kantian concept of reason which then ‘must cognise the necessity of every form a natural product in order to comprehend even the conditions of its genesis’ but ‘cannot assume such [natural] necessity in that particular given form.’20 The first proposition of the duality is that self‐organised beings are defined as natural purposes because we can conceive of such things only in accordance with their being the product of design. The second point follows that this is not proof that those self‐organised beings are the products of conscious design. The implication of this nuance is that Kant is able to collapse the terms nature and design without collapsing art into nature. 21The corresponding co‐existence of the designed and the un‐designed leads towards defining the modern organism.22


It is imperative to understand that Kant uses the term design in a specific manner, which until now has rejected incorporation into architectural design practice. Terms such as creativity, innovation and originality are often used in association with design practice in the architectural forum and identify an association to newness and the bringing about of something out of nothing. This drives a tendency towards novelty‐factor architecture.23 Conversely, Terzidis argues that design is a process of discovery and the unveiling of some pre‐existing architecture. This conclusion is drawn from the notion of design according to the Greeks, whereby it is semantically associated with the past, not the future.24 According to Kant, this assumed pre-existence of the object which itself may only be judged through comprehension of design, assumes some other conscious design process took place before the architect “unveiled”. Kant argues against the determinability of such conscious design. The Greek notion of design associating with the past connotes a Kantian reflective judgment, in which we can only understand purposes through their being designed. The Kantian design therefore sits somewhere between the former and the latter, as a process whose product is at once never previously encountered, but whose potential (rather than Terzidis’ actuality) has always existed.


Computer‐aided design is a species of design which can be separated into two modes of utilisation: computerisation and computation. Of these two, the former is the dominant mode and involves the digitisation of pre‐existing entities or processes. Computerisation is a mode of “unveiling” design which relies on a pre‐conceived “original” design of the architect. CAD programmes allowing digital models to be “built” in such a manner. Despite advancement in tools, computerisation inherently relies on the stability of the aforementioned commonly accepted definitions of design, and presents architecture no forward step. In contrast, computation concerns the ‘exploration of indeterminate, vague, unclear and often ill‐defined processes; because of its exploratory nature, computation aims at emulating or extending the human intellect.’25 Computation is evident in algorithmic modelling processes. The difference between computerisation and computation characterises the second point of Kant’s Natural Purposes – that conception via design does not confer conscious acts of design. Computerisation is designed; computation is un‐designed. As the un‐designed design is seen provide potentials for new pathways for the architectural object, computational use of digital resources will focus the remainder of this discussion.

The provisional alignment of computation with natural purpose would benefit from a specific analysis directed by technic, the name Kant gives to the procedure (causality) of nature, and the mechanic, the name given to the perceived product of that process.26 This dual analysis is particularly pertinent to the two major strands of critical design theory regarding digital design – that of the procedural systems of design such as morphogenesis, and that of the aesthetic of form‐based outputs.


Let us look first to the technic of computational digital design. The procedures of computational design are many and varied, from parametrics to morphogenesis and algorithms.27 Neil Leach, in Digital Morphogenesis, separately identifies Material Computation and Digital Computation before outlining the relationship between the two.28 His discussion of Material Computation focuses around bio‐mimetics, with the architectural examples of Gaudi and Frei Otto outlining how analogue computation works in conjunction with a scenario whereby ‘nature itself can teach us important lessons about the efficiency of certain structural organisations.’29 Leach’s assertion that computation translates to inspired form‐finding undermines the potential offered by a Kantian definition of computation towards from generation beyond determination. Computation’s relationship to the natural product is not to be confused as synonymous with bio‐metric design. Dollens’ statement that bio‐metric (bio‐mimetic) design is ‘nurturing an emerging architectural paradigm wherein digital computation ... and nature develop new systems, forms, structures, aesthetics and materials,’ a false dependency is presented. 30 Bio‐mimetics, by definition, rely on the architect’s conception of and ability to mimic, represent, and/or simulate. As long as digital design continues to relate to the architectural object in this manner it can neither come closer to nature, nor resolve the disengagement of embodied space from digital practice.

However, Leach’s discussion of the value of the ‘second generation of computational methodology’ as detected in Kristina Shea’s EifForm is valuable to the establishment of technic of computational digital design in two ways. 31 Firstly, the process of structural shape annealing means that the architect is essentially  outside’ the design process. This has implications for understanding how the technic drives the architect’s relationship with the computer towards producing an autonomous architectural object. Secondly, the process, described as ‘non‐monotonic’ identifies a series of steps – definition of co‐ordinates, programme, and resolution – which accord the ‘logic of a bottom‐up, stochastic method,’ in opposition to typical top‐down design methodologies.32

These two implications are deemed important in relating of digital design to the natural purpose so will be afforded a brief description. The placing of the architect “outside” the design process asserts an oppositional position to the typical theory of computer use, which declares that the computer is utilised primarily as a tool. This tool defines an intentional use towards a pre‐conceived outcome, a reversion to traditional definitions of design. Ironically, architects such as Neil Denari and Peter Eisenmann who claim the computer as tool have no formal education in computer science.33 Use is therefore mediated by personal desired outcomes, not by the potentiality of the computer systems. The ability of the architect to recognise the process of the computation as similar to “creative” design is, perhaps, confused with the computer engaging in innovation.34 However, the conceptualisation of the architect, the user of EifForm, as in collaboration with the computer raises the digital design process to a reflection of human capabilities, generating multiple, unpredictable future outcomes. A similar model showing the potential of equalising roles is that of Dadaist poetry; where indeed, ‘unpredictabiliy is, by definition, a disassociation of intention.’35

The simultaneous turning of the design process away from top‐down towards bottom‐up shifts the production of architectural objects towards the architectural organism. Attributing a specific design process to either one of these directionalities of cause and effect is, however, more nuanced than Leach asserts. Parametric form generation and morphogenesis can both be considered as effective causes; ever progressing series of causes and effects which presuppose each other in a single direction. 36 Conversely, technic is defined by a type of causal combination which Kant accords to a concept of reason, a backwards and forwards series in which ‘the thing that has been called the effect may with equal propriety be termed cause of that of which it is the effect.”37 In algorithmic architecture, there exist not only countless potential steps – deduction, induction, abstraction, generalisation, structure – but they invoke movement both forward and backward in direction from each delineated cause. The overriding technic of computational design is therefore that of algorithmic design.

The mechanic of computational design refers to that which is the product of the technic or, architecturally speaking, the aesthetic, material and tectonic consequences of design. The dominant mode for critiquing the mechanic has been the typological model, criticising the perception that morphogenesis and the capabilities of the digital in terms of modelling have directed form towards a new typology defined by Wong as freeform. 38 The direction of digital architectural products towards the construction of a new formal language prompted  discussion dominated by the Deleuzian fold and smooth spaces, pertinent to digital design for their place in Deleuze’s distinction between the ‘realisation of the possible and the actualisation of the virtual. 39On this formal product of digital design, Terzidis writes that ‘computational rearrangement of formal rules that describe, define and formulate a certain style can produce a permutation of possible formal expressions for that style.’ 40 To relate his logic to the natural purpose we can look to the example that all rabbits look like rabbits, but not all rabbits look like the same rabbit. This qualifies the production of a typology through design processes.

To continue momentarily with Deleuzian material theory, in response to the platonic ideal whereby the origin of form is transcendental, Deleuze proposes that ‘form is immanent in the material itself, not something transcendental or imposed from outside.’41 This implies that form has an element of nature about it. In this reading, materials have an inherent capacity for the generation of form, and to self‐organise. Manuel De Landa illustrates this with phase transitions.42The mechanic and the technic are inseparable. This is, of course, assuming that such forms are the product of algorithmic processes, not pre‐conceived design which is then digitised. The abstraction of the aesthetic of the technic in this manner ‘marks a shift from a modernist notion of abstraction based on form and vision to an abstraction based on process and movement.’43


The aforementioned typology‐based mechanical elucidation of the architectural object begins with the parts, assuming knowledge of them will explain whole (in this case, a “part” is the architectural form). However, in the case of algorithmic architecture producing an architectural organism, or so organised body, the parts can only be accounted for through reference to the whole, and the inverse is also true. The possibility of conceiving of the whole before knowledge of the parts would be based on intuitive understanding, which we do not possess. 44This discussion pertains to the natural in line with geometric thinking. Geometry here is  expanded to consider how the parts are shaped in such a way that they ‘fit’together to form a whole. The parts of the architectural mechanic include the overall form, structure, symbolic connotations, materiality, and perceived beauty. The natural “fit” of these parts denotes embodied space. This mode of geometric thinking identifies a forgotten tradition of geometry in metaphysical philosophy. 45 From the aesthetic processes of perceiving the mechanic thus is drawn a spatial geometric thinking.


Bearing this in mind, a secondary mode of critiquing the mechanic arises in Grey Lynn’s Animate Form which aims to challenge the ‘dominant cultural expectation that buildings must be built for eternity,’ and the idea that ‘architecture as building emphasises an iconic image – singularity and static in fixity’ a phenomena which he terms stasis.46His proposition is for a ‘performance envelope’ which engages time and motion techniques into architectural design.47 Time and motion thus become parts belonging to and defining the whole. The history of stasis in architecture can be linked to the Enlightenment, when the architectural object desired to overcome the wildness of nature.48 Re‐evaluation of the importance of stasis can re‐consider architecture’s relationship  with nature, as mediated by digital design, and is thus of particular pertinence.

The products of digital design processes signify to Lynn a shift from ‘a passive space of static coordinates to an active space of interactions.’49 However, Neil Spiller is sceptical about the consequences of using  animation in the field of architecture, arguing that a pre‐disposition towards time‐based phenomena overrides spatial concerns. 50 This question of the spatial concerns of the digital architectural organism will guide the final section of this paper.

From the discussion of the Technic and Mechanic of digital architectures, it can be reasonably inferred that
in computer‐aided design elements are more the expression of virtual tools than of real environments.51 Because of this, the product is a natural product; the architectural object is an architectural organism and should be considered in terms of Kant’s definition of design as ‘only express[ing] a principal of the reflective, not the determinant judgement’ of the product.52 Thus, in order to unlock the potential for the digital architectural organism to be reconnected through to the embodied real object which is primarily defined by spatial experience, an understanding of Kant’s reflective judgement is necessary.


According to Kant, judgement is a fundamental tenet of philosophical thought, because it mediates the link
between the theoretical and the practical. This mediation is critical to the design of architectural space. Kant notes that theoretical philosophy has as its topic the cognition of sensible nature, where practical philosophy has as its topic the possibility of moral action in and on sensible nature. 53The inhabitation of digitally‐designed architectural space can be seen to straddle the cognitive and the experienced action. According to Rawes, in the Critique of Judgment the relationship between space and experience becomes ‘internalised into the powers of the sensing and reflective subject.’54 The reflective subject, who allows design of the architectural organism to be conceived, also derives space and time from transcendental forms, translating them through their conception into perceived and embodied reasons. Thus, in the production of a digital architecture (natural purpose) which is both teleological (technical) and mechanistic (aesthetic) in purpose, the division between abstract, disembodied space which is considered typical of virtual or digital space and embodied space can be collapsed in a way which challenges the perception that architecture is always determined by the architects ideas. In order to understand the implications of such a collapsing of space, we must question first what virtual space is, and secondly what the architects relationship to the new architectural organism is.


Over the course of the last three decades, the term virtual has been so debased that it now often simply refers to the digital space of computer‐aided design. The result of this is what has been termed a simultaneous shrinking and extending of space. 55 We should, however, note that Kant describes space as “neither matter nor the set of objective relations between things but as an ideal internal structure...an instrument of knowledge.” 56According to this definition, space is inherently virtual, not existing between objects of matter. If we follow this shift in thinking to its end, virtual space can be taken to mean ‘an abstract scheme with the possibility of being actualised.’ 57 Space has no limits, and may neither “shrink” nor “expand.” Moreover, if space is an instrument of knowledge, space is indeed based on the premise of reflection.


The architect’s relationship to the architectural organism is then also mediated by space. This is not to promote the prevailing myth that ‘space is the tool of the architect, that the architect is the manipulator of space.’58Technic has it that space is no tool, instead existing in and of the architectural organism. The autonomous architect is thus replaced with what I shall henceforth term the Reflective User, based on Kant’s reflective subject. The traditional architect is a reflective user in the same capacity as the public user. To recall the natural purpose, Kant’s reflective subject is the judgement which can conceptualise an organism only through its having being designed. Where the traditional architect assumes the role of determinant judgements, the distance between the object and the concept is seen to be problematic. However, with reflective judgements, the validity of the concept stands for the object, and vice versa.59 The reflection determines a whole (architectural organism) made up of parts (structure, form, surface, symbol, function) which constitute that whole, being engaged together in what can only be described as an embodied spatial geometry.


The second part of the term Reflective User is concerned with the notion of occupying space for some specific purpose. Hill writes that spatial use occurs when ‘an experience is carved out in which you cannot really tell whether the novelty or the antiquity of the experience is the one which predominates.’60 The parts and the whole, the technic and mechanic define and are defined by each other through the user’s reflection. However, use connotes something beyond the cognition of the organism. Use connotes that the architectural organism is part of some larger product. We realise now that the organism and the human user meet on the same terms – that the user too, is a natural purpose. And that precisely because of the forwards/backwards cause/effect duality, both are parts of some larger product. Without metaphysics taking us too far beyond the specific of architectural application, it is this larger product which allows the user to engage in a ‘reduction of environmental meaning.’61


This potential for meaning can be correlated with FAT’s analysis of cybernetic architectures which offer ‘a potential dialogue between a creative building and a creative user.’62 This dialogue is most obviously manifest in hybrid buildings – buildings with characteristics of the human body or qualities of the intelligible human mind. However the majority of such buildings engage in mimetic design processes, and as such are not natural products. This fusing of an existing design and a desired architectural outcome means that the ‘creative user’ is reliant on the existing design. The same is true of buildings claiming to be flexible or utilising open plans which inherently ‘assume that the architect can cater for the future needs of the user.’63

Hill defines categories of mental, bodily, physical, constructional and conceptual creative users.64 Where each of these ‘creative users’ produces different space or gives meanings to an existent one, the reflective user is directly involved in the production of space and so can produce rather than extract meaning, an outcome digital architecture is searching for.


Thus, Kant’s theory of the Natural Purpose enables a rich discussion about the technologies and aesthetic outputs made available to the architectural design practice through digital design. The repositioning of design processes to this definition of nature forces a reconsideration of the fundamental definitions and processes which architectural design engages in, and too often assumes as static. As an example of the natural purpose in digital design, algorithmic design reveals its value in the introduction of the digital at a collaborative level with the architect, and the refusal to pre‐cognise architectural design outcomes in favour of a varied unpredictability. Following the definition of the algorithmically designed architectural organism as a natural purpose, is the introduction of the reflective user, capable of understanding the architectural organism only through the dual dependency of parts and the whole. Reflective and spatial judgements formed by the reflective user are shown to work on multiple levels: cognising the existence of the organism, coalescing the technic and the mechanic and turning to the system towards an embodied space. Through this process of reflection, meaning is produced and perceived as inherent to the digital architectural organism. Such a discussion lends to digital design a new method of self‐cognition, verification and engagement with wider real architectural design practices. The potential for digital practice to reconfigure architectural thinking is not inherent in the newness of the tool as is commonly assumed, but rather lies latent in the underlying rethinking of design, space, and systems which the digital design embodies. It is through engagement with these deeper questions, that users may find meaning in digitally designed space.





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