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algorithm 1.0

“An algorithm is a step by step procedure to solve problems of logic and mathematics. A recipe is a good example of an algorithm because it says what must be done, and in what order. … Informally, an algorithm can be called a “list of steps”. Algorithms can be written in ordinary language, and that may be all a person needs.”

For at least a dozen years I’ve been fascinated by the potential of algorithms as they might  be applied to the architectural design process. A major stumbling block has been my antipathy to computers—or perhaps I mean toward computer science and, by extension, to the people in that field who I’ve encountered. Once (just once, I’ll admit) I actually went to our Computer Science department offices in search of a faculty member or grad student who might enjoy stepping beyond their academic cloister and engaging someone from another discipline. It didn’t happen.

In our architecture library there is—or at least there was—a book about the villas of Andrea Palladio. There is also a much newer book by Peter Eisenman, et al., about that significant volume of work from the Italian Renaissance, which is worthwhile for its analytic approach…

…but the earlier book is more applicable to what I’m after because it included a computer disk enabling you to design a Palladian villa of your very own. And it was able to do that because someone had written an algorithm. The problem? The program is so antiquated that no computer exists today which can read it. And yet, the craving in my very being for a similar architectural algorithm won’t go away.

The building type I want to study is the Akron-Auditorium church, a phenomenon of Protestant religious architecture unique to North America (the English-speaking part) and no other place I can find. My database of examples—many of them unverified—now numbers a handful shy of 8,200. I’d call that a phenomenon by anyone’s definition. The question for me is simple: is it possible to abstract from those examples some insight to the design process which created them?

Generating a computer application from the A-A planning process requires us to get inside the minds of architects from the years 1880-1920, asking them to prioritize the chain of decisions, from large to small, they may have used to design an A-A church. It would be sufficiently difficult to ask living architects about this, let alone a bunch of guys dead for at least a century. So why do I imagine this might be possible, let alone desirable? I can suggest a response to the first part of that question. But for the time being, I’ll ponder that in my heart as I seek the algorithm itself.

This presumes, of course, accepting the definition at the head of this entry: that architectural design might be a logical process.

It is my great good fortune to speak “ordinary language”.


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