The Gormenghast Project: extended project overview

Place and Parametricism: Provocations for the Rethinking of Design

Architecture, by its nature, is design that appears in a specific place.  In contemporary architectural practice, digital design computation allows designers to alter the variable but concrete numerical attributes associated with a place to modify the design without starting from scratch.

Parametricism, as it has become described, is necessarily based on quantifiable numerical input.  However, while space and time are readily subject to quantitative treatment, this is not true of place, whose essentially qualitative character is often taken to be resistant to any quantificational approach. Can this resistance be overcome without reducing place to something less than it is? Can quantitative approaches have any role in the engagement with place from a design perspective – and without such approaches, can design engage with place at all?

Given the unavoidable centrality of place in relation design, the challenge presented by place is one that must be addressed. The problem is to find ways in which the qualities of place can be taken up, even if only partially, in quantitative data, in a way that enables good design, but does not lose sight of the complex qualitative character of place. A key task is to find a solution to this problem in a way that can give rise to concrete strategies and methods that can also be made available as a consistent, useful toolkit for architects and designers.

The Gormenghast Project

The intention of The Gormenghast Project is to rethink the meaning of design through an exploration of the relationships between qualitative values of space and quantitative characteristics of computing in design, especially through parametricism.

In short – how can qualitative information be rendered as useful quantitative data for use in design in a contemporary understanding of place, its uses, and its relationship with the environment and community?

This exploration will take place through examination of the fictional places of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels (Peake, 1946-1959).

Through these fictional places, the research projects will have an already articulated set of distinctive places that are not constrained by pre-existing physical reality.  Although Gormenghast exists only in imagination, it also incorporates the real places Peake drew on for his work and reflects the way actual places are understood and experienced.  This blend of places real and unreal along with experiences of place, allows wide scope for creative variation in potential design approaches and outcomes.

Project design

The project is designed to address the gap between theories of the qualitative characteristics of places and the quantitative applications of computing in design, especially through the conception of parametricism.

Gormenghast’s set of places carry strong qualitative elements: narrative, emotional and sensory.  Such places present an immediate challenge to a parametric approach.  The work will establish an innovative and significant theoretical grounding in place studies, supported by advancements in computational analysis and modelling.

It will also provide a unique opportunity for creative research collaboration from a range of perspectives, domains and disciplines – notably from architecture and urban design, landscape design, ecology, engineering, literary theory and criticism, scenography and philosophy.

This project will advance Australia’s capacity to respond to environmental change by integrating research outcomes from biological, physical, social and economic systems into practical design toolkits that can advance the understanding and design of places.  By focusing on advanced computing in design, the project will develop and support existing industries and contribute to the development of a new and advanced manufacturing sector.

Three stages of The Gormenghast Project

The project will consist of three major parts that will focus on initial research, experimentation, and synthesis.

Stage 1: Place Framework

Stage one involves comparative analysis; input from the interdisciplinary stakeholders via interviews, individual submissions and a workshop, prototyping and modelling.

A collaborative working typology of place will be developed, along with an account of digital architectural design as an emerging metaculture.  Key stakeholders will help to modify and mature the typology.  They will be drawn from client groups and professional practice, along with writers, artists, scientists, engineers, philosophers, futurists, data analysts, architects, urban de- signers, planners, government and leaders from the corporate sector.

Initially, the typology will be used to frame the literary, physical, virtual descriptions taken from Peake, with a view to creating deep maps of contrasting examples for comparison.  Such maps will inform the construction of physical/augmented/virtual/simulated models/games/stories of place that will be used in subsequent research studios, and as self-standing exhibits.

Stage 2 – Model Places

This stage involves deep mapping, modelling, and reflection via the open studios and integrated work-shops with guest experts, prototyping, reviews and a continuous exhibition.

The novels will be used as templates to identify contrasting ‘types’ that exemplify situations and locations to which the concept of place can be applied, and then examined in research studios.

The research studios will be run sequentially and collaboratively, developing criteria for comparisons between studios and the types of places they generate.  Digital technology will be used to maximise the character of each type and its capacity interrogated through prototypes.

Studio A: Lives of Buildings will focus on interiority, shelter, a place apart, autopoietic (self-maintaining) systems and parametrics.  The studio will examine objects and spaces that are characterised by connections, fluidity and overlaps, as opposed to the discrete boundaries and territories suggested by physical architecture and visually based constructions of space.

Studio B: Corpses of Thought will experiment with material objects as an extension of organisms, politics, symbolism and ephemerality and – again – parametrics.

A defining moment in Peake’s Gormenghast narrative is arch villain Steerpike’s destruction of the 76th Earl of Groan’s refuge – his library.  His burned books are the ‘corpses of thought’.

This subproject will engage with Peake’s depiction of the event, its locale, and its aftermath, with an aim of understanding physical and emotional phenomena through transdisciplinary design research.

Studio C: Crisis of Imagination will engage with exteriority and fuzziness, interconnected systems, ecologies, synthetic ecologies and computational alternatives to parametrics.

The third book, Titus Alone pushes the protagonist into the external world.  Removal from place as a geographic location links the research narrative to the radical imaginations of modernity, networked lives and the indexed and commodified nature of future places.

All design is subject to the unstable limitations of knowledge, time, finances, physical laws and changing fashions.  By extension, complex contemporary problems of environmental degradation, urban expansion and the resulting novel ecosystems cannot be modelled completely.

This studio focuses on radically bottom-up methods that seek to utilise continuous, reactive, semi-intelligent and fully autonomous behaviours of natural and artificial systems.

Stage 3: Place-oriented design toolkit

Additional design work will extrapolate the resulting classifications of type and design methods towards “real” places, which will be done via a symposium staged at a conceptually relevant site or sites that will be determined in Stages I and II.

Different stakeholders will be brought into one working space and unified around future-oriented design propositions, helping them to develop imagery, models and languages that can assist understanding and communication, apply computer technologies, and test whether universalising, data-driven approaches can help place design, and how.  Successful outcomes will be distilled into toolkits that effectively redesign the design process.

Scope, outcomes and benefits

The Chief Investigators have extensive experience in running design research projects in research studio contexts in a variety of locations and on a broad range of topics.

The proposed research studios provide the means to use the experimental field opened up by Peake’s work to explore relationships between place and parametricism.  This will give rise to an ongoing process of proposal, testing, modification and fresh proposal.

The project hinges on exploring the connection between two ideas: that close attention to place is central to good design and that good design is furthered by parametric approaches.  For example, issues of sustainability and environmental change actually draw together questions of design with questions of place in a way that includes residential, commercial, and public architecture, urban and landscape planning, infrastructure management and construction.

No comparable work in previous architectural theory and practice engages with the issues of place and digital architectural design as envisaged here.  It may prove that Parametricism is in tension with place-oriented approaches – or parametricism may provide a new and illuminating way of engaging with place itself.

Project team:

  • Prof. Mark Burry (Swinburne University of Technology)
  • Prof Jeff Malpas (University of Tasmania)
  • Prof Gini Lee (University of Melbourne)
  • Dr Stanislav Roudavski (University of Melbourne)
  • Prof Mark Taylor (Newcastle University, NSW)

PhD Candidate(s)

  • Jules Rutten

Project generously supported by the Australian Research Council 2017-2020


16 August 2017

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