Form + Code, Book Review

Written by Eduardo Navas

Form and Code in Design, Art and Architecture, as the book’s cover proposes, is a “guide to computational aesthetics.”  As such it lives up to its promise, which one must accept with the understanding that the authors selected projects that are, in their view, representative of larger movements.

Form + Code, co-authored by Casey Reas, Chandler McWilliams, and Lust, released in the Fall of 2010, gives equal attention to textual as well as visual language.  This could not be accomplished without the careful treatment of image and text as complementary forms of communication.  For this reason it makes sense that Lust, a design studio based in The Hague, is given equal credit as co-author.

In fact, the book’s innovation largely lies on its design, which, at first glance, may appear to be that of a small coffee table publication.  Upon closer examination, however, it becomes evident that Form + Code exudes expertise from practitioners who do not profess to be interested in making theoretical or historical propositions, but instead want to share their knowledge on how to be creative in computing and the arts.  The book’s honesty is its strength.  However, such honesty narrows somewhat the book’s potential to become a definite reference for computational aesthetics.  Before I get to the latter, I must emphasize the former.

The authors wrote the book from the perspective of educators who throttle the areas of architecture, art, and design.  It begins by simply asking: “What is Code?”  The reflection on this question enables them to demonstrate computational aesthetics’ valid position as a subject to be examined by those interested in communicating creatively with emerging cultural forms.

In this way the authors explain in the book’s first pages what is (of all things) an algorithm, both in cultural and technical form.  This balance between cultural and technical understanding of terms that might only be considered in the sphere of computing effectively complements the book’s treatment of image and text as equally important variables of communication throughout all the sections.

The result is that the reader is able to evaluate with ease the book’s main premise: to demonstrate how forms and objects created with computer code are undeniably bound to aesthetics that are equally informed by technological and cultural elements.  This balance is important to keep in mind as we participate in a reality in which computing is undeniably becoming ubiquitous.

The authors in their second chapter, titled “Forms and Computers,” eloquently provide the historical background that informs the works that follow throughout the other chapters: Repeat, Transform, Parameterize, Visualize, and Simulate. These are all terms often used by artists and designers who implement code as part of their creative vocabulary; and they are, in fact, the titles for the rest of the book’s chapters.

After moving past the historical content, which is quite brief, but well presented, one has to question the critical foundation of the book, not so much in terms of which works were selected, but rather in how the authors view the relationship of architecture, art and design.  This, in effect, leaves the reader with a feeling that the book is omitting something important from the relation of code to material and immaterial production.

The authors state: “The use of software in the arts can be separated into two categories: production and conception.  In the first category, the computer is used to produce a preconceived form; in the second, the computer participates in the development of the form.  Within the context of this book, we’re primarily interested in the latter.”(p. 25)

Based on this premise, they go about exploring code as a creative medium. The examples are many and quite diverse–and they do, indeed, crossover among architecture, art and design. To name a few works, for the chapter titled “Repeat,” the authors share Elena Manferdini’s “Arktura Ricam Stool,” (2008); for “Transform,” ART+COM’s “The Invisible Shape of Things Past,” (1995); for “Parametrize,” SHoP Architects’ “Rector Street Bridge,” (2002); for “Visualize,” Marco Weskamp’s “Newsmap,” (2004-09); and for “Simulate,” The Personal Robitics Group’s “Nexi.”

When we look at each of these and other examples throughout the chapters, it becomes evident that the authors’ aim is to show how code crosses over, and effectively unifies (to some degree) the three creative fields of architecture, art and design.  But a direct juxtaposition of works from these three disciplines, with–literally–no explanation aside from how the key concept for each chapter is deployed in the selected projects, does not clarify how code is in fact a shared variable that enriches each discipline, while also bringing them closer into a new space in which code takes effect materially as well as immaterially.  This last point ,somewhat recognizable between the lines throughout the publication, should be brought to the forefront of the works’ contextualization to make the book’s mission more complete.

The result is a space where misinterpretation of creative practices can take place.  This is important to acknowledge because it is evident that the book is designed to be a type of reference manual, a textbook of sorts, to be used in art and design schools.  This is also obvious to any specialist in media studies, who is well acquainted with computational aesthetics, and for whom the text may be too basic to be taken seriously as a theoretical or historical contribution.  But as an educational object, the book is useful.

For this last reason, it is even more crucial to take the time to explain (as briefly as the contextualization of code as a medium previously quoted), how the specific histories of the three areas of specialization are enriched by their shared use of code.  From an educational point of view, this would help enhance the understanding of the complex relationship of architecture, art and design.

The relationship between art and design, in particular, is often misunderstood by students.  Some students may erroneously view their design as art, or vice versa.  This is complex because, certainly, some instructors have decided to ride the line between art and design as a deliberate career move; and they themselves may not be aware of how they are doing this. But understanding how such separation is at play, even when one may want to subvert it, is important, and it should be stated explicitly in a book which ultimately is designed to be educational in fields that are historically intertwined but also clearly defined as proper specializations.

To be fair and specific, I will state the difference between art and design, which is contested to this day by artists and designers who don’t want to be comfortably labeled. The crux of the debate is that art production relies on an open-ended reading: its purpose is questioning while also exploring the possibilities of formal expression.  Institutionally and professionally speaking, art’s role is to offer purposiveness without a purpose.  Design, on the other hand, is directly linked to the private sector, and once the student leaves the educational institution, she will be expected to work for a client in order to effectively deliver a specific message.  Designers are literally in the business of communication and experience.

Such differences could be embedded throughout the text in ways that demonstrate the crossover of disciplines.  But this is not the case.  Instead we are left with works from architecture, art and design that definitely use code but leave the reader  confused about their intertextual relation.  Brief comparative contextualizations for the selections (beyond the straight forward modularly designed descriptions) in each chapter would probably resolve this important issue–even if the authors’ had not considered dealing with the history of the disciplines.

Expecting that the reader (especially the unacquainted, who is obviously the book’s primary audience) will somehow understand how code reshapes the history of the respective disciplines is too much to expect.  This would not be an issue if the book was not framed as the authors explicitly state in the front cover, “a guide to computational aesthetics.”  A guide must do exactly what its name states: guide, and explicitly define and demonstrate how the subject of emphasis is deployed.  Regardless, Form  + Code is surely to become a reference manual for computational aesthetics; one that in its own, brief, but well organized approach, exposes how in the future, cultural production, whether on the screen or in physical space, will be shaped by code.