Puzzles are, I suppose, games that you play by yourself. As an only child — you’d think by now I’d have beaten that horse to death — puzzles kept me out of trouble and I’ve continued to love them well into my old age. Sudoku are among my favorites but word games, crosswords, and the now disappeared double-crostic that was a mainstay of the old Saturday Review are favorites as well. Though it’s the abstraction of numbers and shapes which fascinate even more. It may well be that I chose architecture as a career because I see design — the manipulation of numbers and shapes; doing my own and appreciating those of others — essentially as a game.
Our department I.T. specialist and I had a long conversation yesterday afternoon (with requisite social distancing) about algorithms, which are games of a sort. Understanding their rules of behavior is essential for solving the puzzle at hand. [What I especially like about puzzles is that you solve them, rather than “win“; winning has never been particularly important for me, which may account for my indifference to academic promotion.] And so our discussion, Ben’s and mine, turned to games.
He told me of one that I should have known, “Cathedral”, which seems to be a lot like Tetris but without a computer. I like it, of course, because its wooden — like me.
Design as Game
Our students, any students of design for that matter, ought to understand the nature of the design process is fundamentally a game, an exercise in strategy (or should I say strategies), a game in James Carse’s sense of collaborative coöperation rather than combative competition. [If you don’t know Carse, you should.]
For most of us, the process of designing involves a nested series of decisions, choices which may, at the moment, be unranked, but whose prioritization will soon become clear. And as we assess our opportunities, weigh the plusses and minuses of each choice, we tend to move from the large to the small; from gross (large-scale) decisions to progressively more and more intimate ones. And with each choice from an array of possibilities, we make an educated “guess” which of those arrayed before us will yield an optimal result. Choices and consequences.
The merit of each choice — each strategic move — can and often is guided by the input of others. It’s a game and we all win when each of us “wins”, understands that we, too, have a stake in the result. That, I suppose, is the nature of the workplace; even academe counts in that regard.
Essentially, our process is deductive in nature: it moves from the general to the specific, the large to the small, the overall concept to the detail. There is an opposite sort of reasoning which doesn’t come into play: induction, which moves from the special case to the general principle. In design, I liken it to the Köhler faucet commercial, where the client pulls from her purse a faucet and proposes to the architect that he “design a house around this!” I’ve often wanted to issue a studio project of this sort: present each student with a residence, for example (perhaps a bad one), as the ultimate goal. But then challenge them to design the building outward from an object chosen at random; a door knob, for example, or a hinge, or a light switch. Two semesters from “retirement” doesn’t give me much time to try this strategy. But it might be worth investing my last semester in such an enterprise.
So, if design in general is a series of nested decisions, how might such a studio operate? And, by extension or implication, what in hell does this have to do with algorithms?