Convoluted Flesh: A synthetic approach to analogue and digital architecture (MAM)

Convoluted Flesh: A synthetic approach to analogue and digital architecture
Marjan Colletti, Marcos Cruz (marcosandmarjan) 2006.
Published in:
Proto Architecture, AD Architectural Design, guest-ed. by Bob Sheil, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester UK.

e convoluted (i.e. overlapped, intertwined and blurred) nature of contemporary architectural design, as we understand it, goes beyond the functions of opulence and intricacy, of technique and simulation, of module and optimisation. It invokes something ranking above notions of beauty, style, and elegance1 - it evokes the sublime, the blissful and the mysterious even within the digital domain. The concept of Convoluted Flesh, which is central to the design investigations of marcosandmarjan2 and their Diploma Unit 20 (The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London), entails an organic spatial and strategic vision that includes the significance of atmospherics and bodily experience, in conjunction with the designer’s technological and poetic awareness.

Simultaneously, the understanding of Flesh3 in this context stands in opposition to the common, yet reductive metaphor of skin as a flat and thin membrane that denies the virtue of inhabitable thick walls. In a time when a lot of the mainstream digital discourse is essentially surface-bound - risking flattening and disembodying the architectural ‘skin’ ever more, at the same time, depriving it from its human and material content, the aim of Convoluted Flesh, on the contrary, is to stress the urgency of a Thick Embodied Flesh that encompasses new ornamental, sensual and corporeal qualities in architecture.

Consequently, the endeavour is then to establish a debate in which experimentation, technology and progress does neither exclude the intuitive and poetic freedom of designers as truly creative thinkers, nor the inherent relationship between the user and the depth of the architectural flesh. Hence, we consider a poetic, as well as ‘corpological’ approach that complement a typological and topological understanding of architecture. A lot of leading discussions in the digital realm are still very much the result of an initial period of discovery of disembodied virtual realities, data-scapes and cyber-realities that culminated in an almost quasi-religious myth of total liberation from physical limitations. Such processes, it seems, have focused more on generating architecture from outside via formulated methodologies towards structural, engineered tectonics. The notion of Convoluted Flesh, on the other hand, implies an approach that develops from inside out, involving experiential qualities, inhabitation and use. Rather than following the structural ‘truthful’ efficiency of the Gothic and its parametric revival, phenomena of Convoluted Flesh are intrinsically associated with a sense of formal, structural and spatial complexity, borrowing from a plethora of Baroque binary conditions, such as the dichotomy of rational and empirical thinking, along with the morphing of classical architectural semantics into playful theatrical tectonics and typologies. It involves the body in a variety of arguments that aim for the synthesis of techniques, technics and technologies4, and the performance (understood both as task and as staging) of the architectural flesh.

The professional and academic design research of marcosandmarjan spirals away from the apparently unquestioned and rather predictable version of what can be understood as the contemporary emergence of a new ‘digital modernism’: the unspecified whitewash (or often just ‘greywash’) of 3D surfaces, the universal Sachlichkeit [objectiveness] of parametric design techniques, and the mechanistic concept of the computer as a purely generative utensil.5 In turn, the concept of Convoluted Flesh challenges such approaches, envisioning experimental, and thus unpredictable conditions in design that are the result of the individual’s eccentric, yet informed understanding of architecture. By looking into advances within a wide range of manufacturing technologies and working methodologies, the produced work results from an open-minded and creative interpretation of such processes, simultaneously pursuing a synthetic model of design that convolutes the technological with the poetic, the visionary with the historic, as well as the ornamental and tectonic within the architectural flesh.

An example of this is our NURBSTER series6, which combines models and 1:1 prototypes conceived as exhibition installations, and their implications on larger-scale constructs. They create an analogue/digital repertoire by utilising 2D/3D modelling software, in addition to CNC, CAD/CAM and RP technologies that allow the easy assemblage of a large amount of components. The size and scale of the majority of NURBSTERs locates them into the domain of interior and urban furniture design, which considers modularity and mass-production, structural stability and tectonic presence. The results are assemblages featuring a high level of formal complexity that nonetheless fits programmatic and ergonomic requisites.

Synthesis of contemporary CAD techniques and CAD/CAM technologies can be seen in a variety of Unit 20 projects, as demonstrated by Tobias Klein.7 More than dextrous modelling and rendering skills, such work relies on being performed with surgical precision without however abandoning the creative (formal) richness of his poetic thinking: the process requires the 3D scan of existing bone formations around which a series of lavishly designed digital 'plasms' are ergonomically developed.

A different expression of an intuitive, non-linear, yet synthetic approach can be observed in Kenny Tsui’s case, whose work explores the ornamental density of an inhabitable architectural flesh.8 The sumptuousness of his formal language and creation of sublime interiors are the result of a re-interpretation of pre-Modern typologies and narratives of spiritual spaces.

Tectonic and ornamental, as well as structural and stylistic synthesis is further achieved in the extraordinary models hand-crafted by Sara Shafiei9. Informed by studies of magic and illusion, her analogue assemblages of digitally modelled laser-cut cone-surfaces are magnificently choreographed, unravelling exuberant, but also functional spatial arrangements. Ultimately, architecture prompts a new relationship between spectator (body) and spectacle (architecture).

Other explorations of convoluted flesh can also be observed in Jay Williams’ maquettes. Here, an array of complex 3D circulation systems is convoluted within the substance of architecture, creating mysterious and emotionally loaded atmospheric inner spaces.10

In the end, in all examples mentioned the concept of Convoluted Flesh re-addresses the relationships of façade (expression, reception, materiality) and interior (effect, action, space), of fixedness (stasis, corporeality of matter) and festiveness (movement, celebration of space), of below (matter, function) and above (manner, vision), of being (manifestation) and bogus (magic), of body and architecture. It sees a great potential in sublime, blissful and mysterious conditions as potentially opening up new aesthetic, spatial or material possibilities that are less limited than its technologically-driven and form-generating counterparts. Above all, it allows creating visions in which the depth of the architectural flesh is, more than anything, convoluted, poetic and synthetic.  


1 We are here counter pointing, for example, Ali Rahim and Hani Jamelle’s definition of elegance and its seminal role in contemporary architectural design. We believe that sophistication in architecture is not the exclusive result of a high mastery of scripting techniques and aesthetic elegance, but rather of a careful consideration of a variety of values, including structural, spatial, and social along with technical expertise and poetics. This approach goes beyond the significance of ‘visual intelligence’, ‘presence, formal balance, refinement of features and surface, and restrained opulence’ that both argue for. See Ali Rahim and Hina Jamelle, ‘Elegance in the Age of Digital Technique’ (Introduction), in AD – Elegance, Vol 77 No1, Wiley-Academy, 2007, p.6, 9

2 Marjan Colletti / 2&1/2D Twoandahalf Dimensionality #3 & #22, 2002-07: 2&1/2D results from an intuitive and playful interaction with software packages in order to express and mediate the properties (rather than parameters) of an interstitial, floating, digital world constituted by a plethora of image/thing hybrids. These 2&1/2D constructs are not illustrations of calculated shapes, but expressions of formulated circumstances. The purely vector-based (geometrically precise, yet entirely abstract) drawings are constructed in 2-D space (no zaxis value, yet spatial depth) and describe convoluted, ornamented, ‘splinear’ fields and blots rather than finite, enclosed, surface-based objects and blobs.

Image 2: Marcos Cruz / Cyborgian Interfaces, 1999-2007: In Cyborgian Interfaces, essential domestic functions such as sitting, sleeping or communicating are transferred from the traditional room-space into inhabitable appliance walls. It creates an exoskeleton that prompts a new haptic relationship between the body and its sensitive-reactive environment. Like an urban coral reef, the building facade and its exposed communication sleeves, tentacles and sitting bulges are understood as architectural flesh, creating a dynamic scenario of unprecedented character.

3 This is a metaphoric understanding of the architectural flesh. There are other interpretations of flesh, including the human, aesthetic, digital and biological flesh (or better, neo-biological flesh), the latter being the focus of the forthcoming issue of AD – ‘Neoplasmatic Design’ (edited by Marcos Cruz and Steve Pike) due in November 2008.

4 Techniques are here understood as process and method, technics as skills and functions, and technologies as scientific knowledge and applications.

5 marcosandmarjan / El Coral, MEIAC Badajoz Spain, 2005-06: The proposal extends the existing museum with an ornamental canopy that feels like a large-scale urban coral. The structure is conceived as an environmental regulator that filters light and heat, as well as embedding numerous services such as kiosks, ticket offices, shops and gallery spaces.

6 marcosandmarjan / Nurbster I and VI, London / Prague, Hamburg, 2004, 2005: The Nurbsters employ a file-to-factory design methodology that finds possible applications in experimental timber and steel structures, facades, canopies, ornamental surfaces and ergonomic internal secondary structures, division walls and furniture pieces.
Furthermore, they react to sustainable issues by optimising the layout of the positive cut-outs on the boards and by reusing the negative cut-outs as ornamental dividing screens.

7 Tobias Klein, Unit 20 / Synthetic Syncretism, 2005-06: Hybrid Relic – The Chelonian Urne: The project revolves around the construction of a series of sacrificial utensils that suit possible rituals of the Cuban syncretic religion of Santeria, which combines elements of African and Catholic beliefs. 3-D scanned and 3-D rapid prototyped, these relics hybridise real and artificial bones in a process that is surgically precise, yet magically inventive. This particular project by Tobias Klein was supervised by Marjan Colletti and Shaun Murray in 2005/06.

8 Kenny Tsui, Unit 20 / Voided Veilism, 2005-07: The project entails a chapel extension at the Basilica of San Clemente, itself a complex of three churches built one above the other. Apart from the intricacy of post-parametric geometries, various architectural references re-enact a challenging conversation on sacred spaces, religious decorative patterns and figural ornaments. These are constructed within the various historic sediments of the basilica in which mesh skins become flesh-scapes that exfoliate, breathe, sweat.

9 Sara Shafiei (Unit 20), Anamorphic Tectonics, Rome, 2006–07: The design of a theatre for magicians readdresses the sensuality, the 3-D depth and ornamental richness of the Italian Baroque. Notions of magical illusion and geometric anamorphosis generate surgically constructed laser-cut
models that describe the functional solution of the circulation, as well as the spatial complexity of this realm of projections, performances and illusions. Handcrafted model of digitally-modelled cone-surfaces for a theatre for magicians in Rome. The projects convolutes structural and stylistic design criteria, understanding architecture in its 3-D depth and ornamental richness. Within the flesh of anamorphic tectonics, elephants are made to disappear: Houdini’s favourite trick.

10 Jay Williams, Unit 20 / Convoluted Tectonics, 2006-07: Pilgrimage chapel: Diagrams and models of interior projections, performances and illusions. The project proposes a new pilgrimage chapel in the Domitilla catacombs on the outskirts of Rome. Various ritualistic routes for pilgrims along with paths for tourists interlock and spiral downwards, creating a new access to the catacombs. Intersecting walls, ramps and domes form open spaces of celebration with hidden pockets that embed confessionals, chapels, altars, as well as services for the arriving pilgrims.