Josh Taron

Critical Tolerance

“Living labor must seize on things, awaken them from the dead, change them from merely possible into real and effective use-values… While productive labor is changing the means of production into constituent elements of a new product, their value undergoes a metempsychosis. It deserts the consumed body to occupy the newly created one. But this transmigration takes place, as it were, behind the back of the actual labor in progress.”

Karl Marx, Capital

Composite Portrait, Subject to Change, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016

A gap has emerged between the narrowing tolerances of architectural form and the widening tolerance spectrum of the technologies that image it. A possible consequence may be the agency exerted by architectural objects in the context of an automated imaging of the city. This contribution outlines tolerance as a disciplinary problem while looking at a project that attempts to exploit the aforementioned gap.

Cultural Tolerance
Tolerance, not unlike architecture, is a term that can be separated into two general categories – one cultural and the other formal. The former is typically ascribed to the socio-political of human interactions that yields a kind of spectrum between who and what behaviors might be accepted and rejected, externalizing the problem of tolerance while maintaining the attribute within an individual or group. This frames tolerance as being dependent on context - defining a thing as being more or less tolerant of the things around it. Architecture is most certainly complicit in the production of cultural forms of tolerance – going so far as to dedicate an entire Biennale on the subject. Cultural tolerance has been infamously contested throughout history but for the sake of argument, we will take the position that the historically enlightened movement toward cultural tolerance and inclusion is generally good precisely because it is complex, problematic and contentious. It is a means to openness and the production of the new which is inherently a dangerous and possibly threatening proposition. Persistent threats to cultural tolerance such as ignorance, bigotry and the broadcasting of disinformation remain but are more productive when addressed as infrastructural and systemic as opposed to irreducible matters of personal belief. Toward that end, it is perhaps appropriate to focus less on individual beliefs and more toward something like technologies of surveillance or similar systems of information harvesting.

In advance of any decision to include or exclude, an entire world of information must first be imaged. This requires both an insatiable thirst for and radical ambivalence toward information itself. Thus the widest possible band of cultural tolerance exists as an a priori ethical substrate. With the world now more capable than ever of both capturing and manufacturing information, an open position toward cultural tolerance with respect to what can be imaged is prerequisite.

Formal Tolerance
The latter category, formal tolerance, is most often left to engineers - specifying acceptable degrees of deviation from the ideal. Here, tolerance is described as an internal degree of precision which, if achieved, designates a form as being ideal enough. Production tolerances of material assemblies, the decimal place that is specified in a 3dm file, or the printing tolerance of an SLS print are all familiar - albeit banal - expressions of formal tolerance that architects might deal with. The asymptotic march toward zero tolerance form comes with a significant consequence as it pushes architectural objects to degrees of precision that elude both human perception and capabilities.
Formal tolerance also presents uniquely familiar problems for architects when it comes to building construction. Historically architects have relied on drawings and digital models to describe the form of a building that someone else will construct. This places a very real limit on the production of architectural form and explains in many ways the slowness of architecture as a discipline. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Architecture does not have to rely on others to construct buildings for them and contractors can be free to resist changing their methods of construction. This may even enable architecture as a profession to look toward new means of describing architectural objects - extending the scope and scale of its thinking to address, for example, the way in which buildings, once constructed, exert their agency in an algorithmic world obsessed with imaging them.

One Project: Two Propositions
Proposition One: What if architecture didn’t need to be constructed but rather only assembled?

Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016
Unassembled Chunks, Subject to Change, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016
Part-to-part Connection Detail, Subject to Change, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016
Connection Fabrication, Subject to Change, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016
Connection Plates, Subject to Change, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016
1:4 Scale Model, Subject to Change, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016

This is a proposition borrowed from pre-fabricated buildings – parts made in factories, delivered to and assembled on site. Architectural components are embedded with the intelligence once solely possessed by those who would physically construct it. Part-to-part connections become the linchpin to an entire design as their complexity is minimized and then transferred across the scale of the form as a whole. This intelligence is mainlined directly from the machine that designs the part to the machine that fabricates it. Both machines are capable of achieving hyper-narrow tolerances at the scale of the part while ensuring manageable levels of tolerance during assembly. It’s not quite self-assembly, but it’s close. Upsides at the scale in question include reduced material costs, quick and easy assembly and disassembly, precise form, reduced construction waste, zero demolition waste, and no building contractors. It a logistical proposition with built-in efficiencies and political viability – an alibi more than a purpose – but a foot in the door for circumventing long standing obstacles to architectural production.

Full Scale Installation, Subject to Change, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016

“Contagious architecture describes a world in which algorithms are no longer or are not simply instructions to be performed, but have become performing entities: actualities that select, evaluate, transform, and produce data. In this world, algorithms construct the digital spatio-temporalities that program architectural forms and urban infrastructures, and are thereby modes of living.”

Luciana Parisi, Contagious Architecture

Proposition Two: Architects can stop making drawings of buildings and instead make buildings that draw themselves

Adjacent Frames, Serial Rotation SIFT Portraits, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016
Alternating Frames, Serial Rotation SIFT Portraits, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016
Fifth Frames, Serial Rotation SIFT Portraits, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016
Three Studies for a Self-Portrait. 1979-80. Oil on canvas. Each: H. 14 3/4, W. 12 1/2 in. - 37.5 x 31.8 cm. Overall: H. 14 3/4, W. 36 3/4 in. - 37.5 x 93.3 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Behind the backs of the architects that designed them, buildings have been undergoing a metempsychosis of their own. The emergence of BIM has produced a highly constrained environment whereby architectural drawing has ceased to function as a representation of a set of virtual possibilities, and instead is more commonly used as a way of minimizing distortion between the digital model and physical building that drawings have otherwise celebrated. Where the architectural drawing used to be a shorthand for a more complex form to emerge (an expression of its virtuality), it is now an equally – if not more – complex model than the building it is meant to represent. What differentiates the architectural drawing from other forms of representation is its ability to integrate spatial distortion generated through the addition of information into techniques of drawing – and that drawing as such is a lost science within the art of architecture.

SIFT Vector Diagrams, Serial Rotation SIFT Portraits, Laboratory for Integrative Design, 2016

So while architects have narrowed the tolerances of their design, the discipline has concurrently become myopic, failing to account for the degrees to which their objects have become consumed by an increasingly algorithmic world. But where practice has lost perspective, automated and algorithmic imaging has picked up the slack. Here architectural objects that enter into algorithmic purviews draw out new effects as they are multiplied through various data-scapes and perspectival aggregations - reintegrated into one another as abject instances of themselves. Here we discover a new kind of project in its infancy – reanimate form – a zombie apocalypse of architectural bodies endlessly searching for things to take pictures of them. But what is architecture to do with its post-generative agency? Bacon’s self-portrait triptych provides us with an image so precise and full of discovery it exceeds the degree of information that any photograph might provide. I wonder what a self-portrait of a building might look like? And if so, what kind of tools or prosthetics might it use to begin to see itself - LIDAR, photogrammetry, Nest data logs, SIFT’s? Does the tolerance gap provide buildings with a kind of developmental space where similar process might unfold? And if so, could they be designed by architects to anticipate and even foster that development? Or perhaps we could begin to treat buildings like time capsules or Last Pictures meant to communicate with aliens that we might never directly encounter. Or, as was the case in the Detroit Reassembly Plant, it can simply be used to regain a critical understanding of places that have become alien to us.

Project Credits:
Sukkah 2016 Research and design assistants: Kristen Forward and Brady Horner
Funding: Beth Tzedec Congregation, Calgary, AB and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)
SIFT Image Processing: Matthew Parker
Images courtesy of the Laboratory for Integrative Design

Joshua M. Taron is an Associate Professor of architecture at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design where he co-directs the Laboratory for Integrative Design (LID). His current research focuses on the way in which new modes of drawing, fabrication and construction can reanimating the already-built environment at the urban and architectural scale. This work is done in partnership with a variety of disciplines such as computer science, structural engineering and logistics. Taron is also Principal of Synthetiques, an award-winning research+design+build outfit focusing on the hybrid ecologies afforded through the interface of computational and physical economies across multiple scales. He earned his undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley and holds a Master of Architecture degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc).