What Is Smart Geometry?

Algorithms and Architecture

Architectural detail of glass triangular fractal facade, Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia
Architectural detail of glass triangular fractal facade, Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Tony Burns/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

If you think that the hidden codes in architecture are interesting, how about smart geometry? Smart Geometry is another way of describing parametric design, an approach that uses complex graphical software to link geometric dimensions and variables. When values change, the architectural model is reconfigured, algorithmically. Whew!

Let's take a look at what the Smartgeometry Group calls the "intersections between computation and design."


"To the new generations of designers, engineers and architects," say the Smartgeometry.org Group, "mathematics and algorithms are becoming as natural as pen and pencil." Founded in 2001, when personal computing was exploding, this UK-based global community of academics and practitioners meet and workshop together every year. Where do they meet?

  • Munich, Germany (sg2008)
  • San Francisco,CA (sg2009)
  • Barcelona, Spain (sg2010)
  • Copenhagen, Denmark (sg2011)
  • Troy, NY (sg2012)
  • London, England (sg2013)
  • Hong Kong, China (sg2014)

What do they do? The SmartGeometry community believe that parametric design will revolutionize the way we build, allowing creations that previously could only have been theoretical "what-ifs." From the looks of experimental models, I have to agree. For photos of mind-blowing smart geometry designs, see Architecture Supermodels, an ArchNewsNow.com report by Terri Peters on the SmartGeometry Conference in Munich.

Wait a minute. Troy, New York? Yes, this eclectic group meets around the world, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), a private engineering and architecture school near the New York State capital. The sg2012 conference was held in one of my all-time favorite venues—the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC)—a curvacious, modern ship of a building that itself was developed with computer aided design.

So, if you don't go for the algorithms, often you can go for the architecture!

About Algorithms:

An algorithm is simply a step-by-step process devised to solve a problem. Since the dawn of man, people unknowingly have been using algorithms to get things done—steps to build a fire, harvest crops, make a baby (and avoiding pregnancy). Like the word "algebra," the word "algorithm" comes from 9th century mathematicians of the Middle East. In the 20th century, algorithms became the basis for computer processing, and today they are all the rage.

The 21st century digital world seems to be ruled by the wizard who can devise the best digital plan. Content-driven websites, including About.com, use data visualization tools and custom algorithms to give users the best experience ever. What else can you do with algorithms?

And, of course, algorithms are used today to design buildings and other structures. Models are created mathematically and rendered with the digital printer. Visualizations have become so perfected that it's difficult to distinguish the theoretical model from an actual photograph.

About Federation Square, 2002:

Peter Davidson and Donald Bates founded Lab Architecture Studio in 1997. Their design to redevelop a city block in downtown Melbourne, Australia, won an international design competition, a public civic and cultural area called Federation Square. The design used a "new understandings of surface geometries" (shown here) in order to make each building look the same and different at the same time:

"Three cladding materials: sandstone, zinc (perforated and solid) and glass have been used within a triangular pinwheel grid. This modular system uses five single triangles (all of the same size and proportion) to make up a larger triangular 'panel'. Following the same geometrical logic, five panels are joined together to create a larger triangular 'mega panel', which is then mounted onto the structural frame to form the visible façade. Through the varying proportions of façade materials within this triangular grid and their combinations within a changing set of patterns or figurations, unique surface qualities have been developed not only for each building, but also for the different orientations of each façade."—Federation Square Design and Architecture

Source: Information > About Us > History and Design, Federation Square Website at www.fedsquare.com/wp-content/uploads/Fed-Square-Design-and-Architecture-2014.pdf [accessed January 11, 2015]

To keep these glass buildings cool, a "labyrinth" of precast concrete walls was built with many zigs and zags. Cool evening air is pumped in to cool the corrugated concrete; by day the cooled air is pumped into occupied spaces—like leaving open the cellar door on a hot, summer's day.

All this seems like good ideas in theory, but Federation Square came in at number 14 when The Telegraph (UK) made a list of The World's 30 Ugliest Buildings. Likewise for the Louvre Pyramid by Pritzker Laureate I.M. Pei—architectural outrage since 1989.

Other Practical Uses for SmartGeometry:

Each year, the SmartGeometry community takes on the challenge of new designs to solve problems found in the design and building of modern architecture. Their focus has included:

Is Smart Geometry Sacred?

Are our buildings shaped by sacred numbers and hidden codes? For some architects, designing beautiful buildings begins with choosing shapes and proportions associated with spiritual ideas. Before you say hogwash!, take a few moments to reflect on the ways some numbers and patterns appear again and again in every part of your life. Here's a quick primer on sacred geometry

An often-cited criticism of an algorithmic approach to design is its lack of spirituality—a loss of the human touch and over-reliance on the technical processes of building. Although few question the "smart" capabilities of computer technology, many question the associated lack of wisdom. Others, like architect Donald Bates, now Professor at the University of Melbourne, see practitioners as the pioneers in a new wave of architecture:

"Whether it is the mythical image of Frank Lloyd Wright or Howard Roark of 'Fountainhead', the media image of the architect as the person sitting down with a pen and piece of paper to sketch out – as a complete idea – an image of a new building, is pretty far from the reality. Not because architects are not intelligent people, but rather that there is a more profound action in the iterative, evolving and constructed truth of a design than in the revelation in the act of a genius."—Donald Bates, 2012

More People To Listen To:

  • Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965)
  • Christopher Alexander (b. 1936)
  • Lars Hesselgren, RIBA, PLP Architecture and founding director of the SmartGeometry Group

Learn More:

Read More:

  • The New Mathematics of Architecture by Jane Burry and Mark Burry, Thames & Hudson, 2012
  • Inside Smartgeometry: Expanding the Architectural Possibilities of Computational Design, Brady Peters and Terri Peters, eds., Wiley, 2013
  • Computation Works: The Building of Algorithmic Thought, Xavier De Kestelier, Brady Peters, eds., Architectural Design, Volume 83, Issue 2 (March/April 2013)
  • A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Oxford University Press, 1977
  • The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander, Oxford University Press, 1979
  • Elements of Parametric Design by Robert Woodbury, Routledge, 2010, and the companion website elementsofparametricdesign.com/

Sources: IN PROFILE: Donald Bates from Lab Architecture Studio by Stephanie McDonald, Architecture & Design, September 11, 2012 [accessed January 9, 2015]; "sgpolicies and customer service" and "about us" on the smartgeometry.com Website; Federation Square Project, Lab Architecture Website [accessed January 11, 2015];

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Craven, Jackie. "What Is Smart Geometry?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 11, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-smart-geometry-177248. Craven, Jackie. (2016, August 11). What Is Smart Geometry? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-smart-geometry-177248 Craven, Jackie. "What Is Smart Geometry?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-smart-geometry-177248 (accessed December 11, 2017).