The Rise of the Box Building: Bananas in Pajamas and BIM software.

I fear that the latest digital software dictates our design decisions without architects really thinking that much about it. Instead of jumping on the new great new BIM technology bandwagon we need a different debate.  I worry that some of the readers of this blog may be a bit tired of my seemingly old school rants about the hazards of digital technologies and design. But they need to be voiced, or written about, before it is too late. Architects need to resist architectural design and design knowledge becoming a sub-system of a commodified production process. Debating the merits of the prevalent software brands is critical to developing a resistance to anything that diminishes our field of knowledge.

B1 and B2: The predominant global software brands 

Let’s call the two predominant software tools beloved by our profession B1 (Trade name of large white almost extinct animal) and B2 (Weird trade name that conjures up Cousin IT). How did our discourse become beholden to these global brands? In order to protect the guilty, I prefer not to name them by their trademarked and branded names. That would give their developers too much dignity. You can work out who I mean.

Like the Bananas in Pohjamas, also named B1 and B2, both are entities that are the result of the new digital media arena that architects work in. A landscape, dare I mention it, intertwined with the emerging digital-military complex. I wont dwell on this broader point, as today I would like to focus a bit on the hazards of B2.

Firstly, for those readers who need further prompting, B1 is a software brand with animal logo of an almost extinct mammal. In total, there are only about 20,000 of the white species of animal left. B1 allows you to design and create plastic and fluid curves and shapes. Arguably, and supposedly, B1 allows you to generate a design. The emphasis here being on the word generation.

The B2 database

In contrast B2 is different to B1 it is not a modelling tool. It is essentially a database. Yes, an actual database that allows you to do some 3D drawing. You can even do 4D in B2. Wow. Googly Moogly Batman: you can slowly watch the Banana being peeled in order to meet supply chain logistics and OH&S logics. All the information created by the B2 can then be used as the B2 created banana withers and dies. All very sustainable. Or so it is claimed.

B2 does have some add-ons which augment it. But in the rush for technical skills, and post graduation jobs, many students and indeed studios are being hampered by the lack of generative capability. Disturbingly, I am starting to see more and more design studios employing the B2 software tool as a generative and primary tool. No conceptual drawing, no generative diagrams, no annotated sketches, no exploration of options, no physical models. Just jump in and start the model.

CAD and BIM Monkey Magic

Who needs the fluff of design when you need the BIMMY B2 skills to get a job, to become a CAD BIM monkey eating B2 bananas. Who needs that when you can quickly whip up an orthogonal framework and put stuff into it. Yes, using B2 in a design studio you can quickly develop a convincing orthogonal structural frame; and a so-called system; and  lo and behold fill your overall frames with some little boxes; or even slightly bigger boxes; Holey Moley Batman these could be rooms: you can then easily pretend you have designed and actual building. A building that is little more than an overall orthogonal frame filled in with boxes and frames and segments.

Pleasuring the reward centres 

But B2, unlike B1, does not create a NURBS wonderland and it has a limited ability to manipulate individual polygons. The pleasure and experience of using B2 is quite limited. You can easily pull stuff out of the B2 database, as that is what it is made for. Coffee tables, dining tables, office tables, chairs, sofas and trees. Not to mention all sorts of windows and doors. It’s not about generative design: It’s about scrolling, clicking and selecting and then placing. Not so different to Ebay. Each time an architect undertakes this process in building a digital model, a reward pulse goes from your eyes once the database object is placed, to the reward centres of your brain. You then feel good using a database even though you have populated your building model with slop. You feel like you have achieved something. You feel as if the model you are working on is real.

Architectural Design requires thought and effort to conceive, generate, manipulate and then recast. It is an iterative process. Sometimes, two steps forward and one step back. The upshot is that with software tools like B2, limit this process, and encourage the least course of resistance to be followed in the design process. Architectural studios and graduate schools are quickly becoming populated with the results of an over use of B2. Our discipline is getting getting swamped with B2 boxes.

A guide to recognising the B2 designed Box

These projects are B2-like boxes, they are easily recognised, and the following guide should help you to spot them as well.

1. They are boxes: Usually with a few additions and subtractions. Addition, subtraction, orthogonal segmentation and division are about the limits of compositional nuance. Of course, you might find a few abberrant curves, But these will be outliers.

2. They are boxes: The box finishes at the lines of its border. Everything is contained within and there is no effort to either extend or consider how the design might extend into or be a part of a surrounding context. No need to think of architecture’s broader urban responsibilities. The bunny is definitely in the box.

3. They are boxes: and utilise a segmentation that is commensurate with the most advanced, but simplistic, prefabricated building techniques. It’s always a melange of concrete and aluminium panels. No need to think about constructional craft or detailing. Its flat packed world of timber and chipboard.

4. They are boxes: and whilst a section may have been cut through the model for display, it is at worst a section that shows an undifferentiated layer cake of walls and ceilings, at best a few gaps have been dropped out or erased to make some interior spaces. There is no crafting, shaping and contouring of sections.

5. They are boxes: The only light that illuminates these creations is the final oh-so-awful V-Ray renders. B2 software does not allow the architect to think about how light might enter or be manipulated in these toxic creations. I mean who cares. You can’t dial up or select actual light from the database.

6. They are boxes: They are dumb and inchoate boxes that have abandoned architectural theory and history except in the most superficial way. There are no cultural tones or thoughts in these creations. No authentic design research and experiment. They are lacking in irony and there is never any subversive hint or self-awareness in their own making. I hate it when these types of projects win prizes.

Architects decried the modernist box of the 1950s international style. But these new boxes are more insidious. Who needs a critical theory of architecture when you can appease your pleasure centres by using a cool database. Who needs theory when you can be part of the B2 Banana cult future.

A future that is a retrograde technological utopia devoid of architecture.