Virtual Evolution


Given all these problematic issues, it must be asked, are evolutionary models of design based on genetic algorithms simply abstract versions of real-world processes, as their protagonists claim them to be, or are the differences between cultural and genetic evolution so great as to suggest that such models are fundamentally misconceived, or, at least misleading?

I hasten to add that, personally speaking, I have no problem with the evident preoccupation in these exercises with baroque form as such. There have always been designers who put formal and aesthetic issues before everything else, consciously or unconsciously. (Greg) Lynn's interest in the ornamental aspects of architecture is also well documented. However, I suspect that much of the attraction of genetic algorithms - for students as for their teachers - lies in the illusion of authority accruing to the design from the algorithm, which the genetic model, as I have explained, may not merit.

An alternative strategy would be to embed design algorithms in real-life projects, as Chris Williams did with the design for the roof over the Great Court in the British Museum, so exposing the selection process to a wider range of environmental issues. (Chris) Wise also suggests something of the kind when he calls for more project-related experiments:

'So far, the emerging technologist has usually had to limit the output of the process to an object rather than a project. A project has a definite purpose. A project has a site. A project interacts with people. It interacts with climate. It interacts with time. And unlike a computer process it is made of imperfect things and materials that change according to this interaction. In short, the project lives.'

Parametric modelling, as used by cutting edge practices like those of Norman Foster and Frank Gehry, already does much of the job. While it automates many complex and time-consuming design processes, unlike genetic algorithms, it has the built-in virtue of permeability. That is to say, it facilitates and encourages external human and environmental inputs of virtually any kind at any stage of the development process, adjusting design parameters along the way.

Beyond such ad hoc developments, however, I am doubtful there will be any significant progress in understanding how architecture, or indeed any other culture-form evolves, so long as researchers remain fixated solely on the genetic model. While the clarity and precision characteristic of computer algorithms might accurately simulate the precision of genetic replication, they hardly reflect the far less exact and more ambiguous processes that characterize the evolution of cultures. In sum, the proper subjects of study for design research are memetic algorithms rather than the genetic variety. Though they might lack the mystique of the latter, with all their pretensions to precision engineering, as models of cultural evolution they are more likely to be relevant to our real needs.

From: 'Virtual evolution - a memetic critique of genetic algorithms in design'. In Kirsten Orr (ed.). Techniques and Technologies: Transfer and Transformation; Proceedings of the AASA 2007 Conference, September 27-29 (electronic publication).