Defining “Building Information”

Students at Yale’s Architecture School are invited to propose topics for an annual journal named Perspecta. I co-authored a proposal with my classmate Raven Hardison intending to expand the theoretical background of building information modeling. I find that the discussion over its uses is largely focused on building process improvement, which is itself valuable, but only a narrow band of its potential. The nature of technologies as disruptive and immature as building simulation and information modeling is that we haven’t yet begun to imagine uses for it. See, for example, this week’s article about the Kinect hacking culture in the Times.

Since we were not selected, it seems in the spirit of things to publish the proposal in hopes that it can germinate other ideas in topics we ourselves were blind to. The original proposal included the names of proposed authors, which have been edited out.



A Failed Proposal for Perspecta 48:


Building information modeling has become fait accompli in the discipline of architecture. Sales of Revit subscriptions steadily rise, while technical facility becomes commonplace. Resignation to BIM’s inevitability has caused a critical blindness toward the nature, forms, and influence of those first two words,building information.”

For Perspecta 48, we propose to step back and investigate unresolved aspects concerning the use of knowledge in design and construction. As a metaphor for the discipline’s approach, consider the parable of the blind monks and an elephant.

A king brings a pachyderm to a few sightless monks as a test. He asks them to reach out and describe this “elephant” they had never before encountered. Unable to perceive the whole creature, each groped at different body parts and returned a correspondingly different answer, all rooted in something familiar. The tail became a whip, the body a granary, the tusk a plow, and one man declared the leg to be a column.

When the king revealed the elephant, he showed their wisdom to be burdened by two key epistemological errors: assuming one has the full scope of information on a subject and, secondly, relying on preconceptions to understanding new information. By approaching the issue from a business side and avoiding theory, the discipline has ceased examining information in a multifaceted way, as it once did.

Forty years ago, researchers like Charles Eastman and Nicholas Negroponte imagined software reminiscent of information modeling and parametricism. Over the next forty years they worked to realize these dreams. But at the same time, the scope of the theoretical aims narrowed from world order to interface to tool and finally to product. In order to produce viable software, designers had to cut back their ambitions to basic commercial goals. Speculation on the radical political uses of data or how digital tools transform our relationship to the physical have been left to coders at the margins.

To reorient the debate, Perspecta 48 looks at “building information” from five key angles. Taking a fundamental perspective, the authors in the first section will examine the epistemology of building. By this we mean what is considered constructional knowledge, and how the discipline organizes it. Another group will look at the ways simulation and dematerialization have transformed humans and their environment.

A third set explores the diverging ends of authority and participation on that building modeling is driving the profession to. Looking at the politicization of knowledge, one group will examine how information multiplies of power and raises new ethical dilemmas. Finally, one collection of essays will discuss the technical difficulties of realizing architecture with digital technologies, and even how to embrace them.

We aspire to reinvigorate the discourse about building information by revealing it to be not merely a technology, but rather as a fundamental element of architecture.


The proposal continues.



A double process of coding, the epistemology of building nests complex information within visually encoded representations: drawings and computer models. Based on complex mathematics and computer sciences, many contemporary tools threaten to reinscribe the everyday experience of architectural design as a blind navigation of inscrutable processes. The opening section of Perspecta 48 asks theorists, computer scientists and architects to reflect on the epistemological boundaries of constructional knowledge. How do the internal structures of the discipline’s tools reshape architectural knowledge, language and exploration?

  • Essay one will introduce the history of machine epistemology and the way that tools structure and define knowledge. The author background lays the groundwork for a discussion of the conflicts introduced by the presence of “encapsulated knowledge,” wherein the machine “knows” things that the architect does not, opening the door to dependence on and distrust of such technological tools.
  • The second essay will shed light on the epistemology of building information through a discussion of the most basic form of knowledge transfer: language. A historical overview will discuss the merits of processing-, parametric-, and constraint-based user interfaces. In what ways do these dominant means of communicating architecture to the machine increase or challenge transparent and fruitful dialogue for the architect?
  • The third essay will differentiate the conceptual structures underlying metrics and parametrics in architectural practice. While metric-based tools make connections and relationships in the building model through categorization, parametric ones create relationships by linking actions to responses. Though these terms are sometimes used interchangeably in architectural discourse, they in fact represent two distinct approaches. This essay reflects on the allure of metrics—measure and standardized categorization—in architecture as well as the possibilities inherent in parametric—actions and response-based—theories as modes of operation for the architect.
  • Essay four will test the capacity of architecture to become a vehicle of information as a communication device. Having written about the building as a medium of architectural representation, the author’s work informs contemporary practices in which information again appears in the form. Might the datascapes of Times Square signage or actuated facades revive a narrative practice for architecture in a society that favors digital metaphors over objects?
  • A graphic history will provide a critical analysis of the way that media has come to completely occupy the facades at Times Square.
  • As a counterpoint to Witt’s digital focus, essay six will describe tradition as a means of knowledge development and transmission. Rather than being an oppressive force, he will discuss the ways that design knowledge can be refined over time when it is stored tacitly in a community and not encapsulated in technology.



The most interesting and immediate effect of the digital turn is not freedom from physical space—as early speculations often prophesied—but rather the way that the conceptual structures, mythologies, and metaphors of the simulated become culturally dominant, transforming the real. Contributors in this section consider the narratives of the digital and the ways that these narratives are altering architectural and spatial conceptions and processes.

  • Essay seven will discuss the cultural significance of the threshold between the virtual and the actual. Having long investigated the interaction between simulated and physical architectures, Spiller’s work elevates the conversation of digital versus real from a discussion of difference to one of synthesis.
  • A graphic essay: Diagramming Avatar. Notable for its super-saturated hyper-reality, the movie Avatar is a wonderfully fantastical expression of spatial desires. The author’s drawings and diagrams of digital space provide an analytical technique valuable for an analysis of the complex digital environments that are increasingly a part of our visual culture.
  • An author who is trained as a materials scientist, architect, and mechanical engineer will discuss the problems arising from a flawed understanding of scientific models used for the design of building systems. Beginning with a history of assumptions and conventional wisdom of environmental conditioning, she will examine the ways that the disciplines have been seduced by the beautiful clarity of simulation.
  • Article ten will discuss how changing views of our selves results from the internalization of technology and is then re-externalized in our work as architects. How does the post-human dialogue in architecture illuminate the cultural trend wherein individuals themselves have a natural affinity for the digital and increasingly incorporate that affinity into their architectural practice?
  • Essay eleven will argue that methods with which we are digitally encoding geographical space both reflect and promote two larger cultural shifts. The first is a change in viewing ecological systems (including the body) as closed systems ruled by equilibrium to open systems ruled by flows and exchange. The second related evolution is a conceptualization of space as a collection of disparate, related elements to one where the environment (buildings, bodies of water, traffic flows, etc.) are systems without hardened edges defined by the rules of their interaction.



Contemporary practices in architecture expose a certain schizophrenia inherent in the rapid push towards complete digitization in field. On one hand, the lofty claims of BIM software packages promise achievement of an Albertian ideal—intelligent 3-D models help architects to write an ever more complete and flawless set of instructions for building construction. On the other hand, practices like autogenic processes eliminate complete or perfect representation as a goal in what Greg Lynn called “a move from autonomous purity to contextual specificity.”  In processes, the Albertian ideal is inverted: the set of instructions become the architect’s input and the output is intentionally indeterminate. This section discusses these divergent trajectories for the digital.

  • Essay twelve will examine the historical description of the architect’s role as creator of a drawing: a set of perfect and complete instructions and the way in which the automated, algorithmic and genetic processes exploited in architecture challenge this notion.
  • This architect will consider the impossibility of his “project” as a structural object and highlight the critical value of his works as substructure and infill. In what ways has his digital design and the design that it inspires begun to fill the conceptual gaps in architecture
  • This essay will discuss the criticality of emergence as an architectural concept. In what ways does “emergence” in architecture resist commodification? What is the value of autogenic practices in architecture as “transgression as a counter means of production”?
  • An interview will discuss problems of centralized design and production in contrast to the aim of distributed and personalized production of goods. They will discuss the potential end of design professions and the role of the government in establishing authorship through legal categories.



Information multiplies political power; information in buildings is no exception. As our architecture becomes more literally and visually imbedded with information, are they also becoming more overtly political objects? What does it mean when the surface of a building can not only be vandalized but hacked? In this section, contributors are asked to explore the political dimensions of building information.

  • Essay sixteen will consider the introduction of “edifice hacking” presented by the technology of 4D projection. A technology that uses 3D information to transform building facades into surfaces that can be visually manipulated and animated, 4D facade projections create vivid and dynamic though temporary alterations the actual building exterior. Though currently used for advertisement and spectacle, rich artistic and critical possibilities are latent in this technology.
  • A dialogue will discuss the possibility that the Bartleby position, “I would prefer not to,” lurks beneath the surface of the exuberant, complex, structurally untenable and financially unfeasible architectures of digital design. Increasingly, young architects are fully committing to mastering an architecture for which there is no client and little hope of realization. Could this trend underpin a deeper socio-political sentiment in architectural culture?
  • A firm will make a moral case for the highest and best aim for parametric architecture. Arguing that architects should focus on performance, rather than form, these architects describe a utopian ideal for information in architecture wherein our advanced tools’ first responsibility is to make buildings better for those who inhabit them.
  • A theorist will discuss the military’s involvement in modeling and simulation of buildings and combat environments. In the United States, the two largest single clients of building information modeling are the General Services Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers. Between mapping buildings to better understand how to attack them, data management, and camouflage, the economic and scientific might of the military is already being brought to bear on architecture.
  • Essay twenty will consider as of yet non-existent cost/benefit equations of BIM. How does building information open new intersections between labor and architecture? Can BIM’s parametric structure be used to subversively or openly improve the lives of workers? For example, could an architect embed a calculus of human suffering into a materials takeoff, referenced against price? Or, what increase in the illegal child labor is it worth $5/square foot cost reduction?



The concluding section considers the reality of technical difficulties with incorporating information sciences and technologies into the aesthetics of a building. As products of humans, machines are not perfect, and worse, they generally lack the ability to adapt to correct for errors. As evidenced by construction difficulties in which CAD/CAM mills catch fire or crews lose time and money in the struggle to coordinate impossibly contorted beams, making building information work well opens opportunities as much as it prevents frustration. Contributors in this section discuss the merits and pitfalls of technological complexity in architecture.

  • Several architects will have a candid discussion of the difficulty in using of advanced technologies in building design and facing occasional technical difficulties and complete failures when they (inevitably) occur.
  • An expert in fabrication will discuss the incompleteness of machine-readable information. Rather than condemning it, he will discuss the way that fabrication processes embrace glitches and work with and around the software to achieve a desired result, just as a designer works with the medium in hand drawing.
  • An architect and engineer commissioned to realize some of the most complex buildings, will go over the difficulties and techniques needed to support difficult forms. Her contribution would include a gallery of attempts to realize a design before finding an optimal solution.
  • Essay twenty-one will argue that architects should not attempt to overly embed building information or overly finesse materials and structures. Instead, building information should be kept simple, and should accept and express the natural processes that will happen during a building’s lifespan.
  • In an interview, a well-known architect will discuss what things he still can’t do, or what he finds hard to use. We will discuss the value of looking at other professions for tools and ideas, drawing a parallel between his interests in West Coast art and using airplane software to design buildings

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