Signifier Signs in a generative process



IUAV - University of Venice, Department of Architectural Construction (dCA)







Is there a possible relation between the new digital media’s contribution and traditional procedures of composition (based on a conceptual elaboration), that would aim at reading contextual relations, and yet obtains shapes whose meaning integrates a formal enquiry with a semiotic one?


A first series of experiments investigates the role that the digital medium should have in the dialogue between local identity’s multiple expressions of a very characterful location.

A series of thoughts looks at the entity of “the unexpected” as a creative contribution by the digital tools employed (apparently said entity is invalidated by the gatherings of practical experience, which seems to grant a rough predictability of the result of dynamic simulations, where the planner is choosing not only the interacting forces, but also the volumes, their geometrical characteristics and mutual relations between the elements in the scene).


The last experiment attempts to separate the three phases in the design process: the contextual, the semiotic and the functional analysis, letting the software to merge the findings into a unique result.

Inverted Cinematics allow to comply with the functional diagram, by translating the requirements expressed by the structural diagrammatic rule and by obtaining a flexible and yet functional bone-structure.

Parametrizing the context (on the basis of functional and visual relations), allows to define a field of forces where dynamic simulation can be performed.

Lastly, individual taste leads to the choice of a flexible “skin” (signifier) which is defined in tune with the meta-project’s influence (signified), the latter being unconnected with the digital medium (prismatic elements vs. blob and organic shapes – “nurbs” exclusion).


Hence we could argue, on one side, that the evolving element could easily be represented as a poetic idea expressed by the architecture, and on the other, that the idea’s shaping magnets are, in fact, re-interpreting the context.

The modelling software’s dynamic simulation defines a signifing shape, obtained by the sum of the three initial aspects, and yet readable as a whole.


1 Initial points

The main idea was to combine the new input from the dynamic generative procedures and the attention to the contextual and semiotic relations. The main focus was the use of new digital tools to point out an architectonic composition made up of marks that highlight both the relations to the site location as well as the significant meaning expressed by the author.

The research was launched with Arch. A.Mognato in the occasion of a project for a biomass teleheating station, an experimental situation to which the following stated experiments refer. [1]

We ask ourselves if the formal research conducted through dynamic generative experiments is necessarily in contrast with the planner's control of the planning marks aimed at the double reading as cited above. We also ask ourselves if the attempt to direct the production of forms towards precise compositive objectives creates a limitation in the principal aspect accredited to the productive experiments, such as the occurrence of “the unexpected” and the break away from preconceived layouts.

1.1 Digital tools

One works by generative digital processes based on dynamic simulations compatible with modern modelling and animation software (3DSMax is used).

The procedures involved are those in which the design team is aided by an instrument that operates like an active matrix and offers an input that exceeds simple practical-managing advantages to encroach on the conceptual inspiration of the geometric topology and of the malleability of its evolving forms. [3] We assume the indisputable mutual conditioning that exists between digital technology and the creative thought that uses it. [4] We also assume supersession of the simple incorporation of an instrument in the design process in order to reach its conceptualisation. Finally, we assume, therefore, that the possible formal experimentations offered in this sense are to be probed in inseparable association with the instrument that makes them possible, and above all, conceivable. [5] That is not all.

What we must underline here is how the generative digital processes mutate the distinctive traits of the planner and the choices he carries out, since the generative process must be conceived by the planner more than does the final result that derives from it. The unexpected and unpredictable features of the final formal result are an integral part of creativity, as well as keys to breaking away from preconceived typological schemes. [6]

In fact, in generative procedure based on dynamic simulations, the architect sets the process and regulates it through the setting of parameters: the layouts elaborated evolve like an organism reacting to certain environmental conditions defined and varied by the planner based on his set premises. [7]

All that has been here prefaced alienates the direct assessment of architectonic marks by the explicit will of the designer.

1.2 Semiotic context and interpretation

Since an architectural project is perceived and experienced in such a way that is inseparably bound to the location in which it is situated, this second preface aims to frame the reasoning by proposing an interpretation of the location.

The proposed research in fact focuses on the relationship that we want to exist between the generated forms and the location for which they were made as an integral part of the significance of the architectonic signs. Using a common metaphor, we can say that the building location is like a complex layered text. [8] Assuming the opposition between the signifier and the significance, theorised by Ferdinand De Saussure [9], passing through a location intended as a group of signs means penetrating into a universe of contents transmitted to us. Particularly, a location site manifests itself as a complex articulation shaped throughout history. In it, in various sizes, natural elements and human works are shaped throughout time to the configuration that we find today. To every sign there is an associated content traceable to human projects as well as human perceptions of natural signs. In most cases, natural aspects and human works followed each other and were articulated in the centuries with occasionally an unaware conditioning by pre-existing features. Today’s configuration is composed of signs that tell us not only of the latest evolution phase, but also in an explicit way, a memory of the ones that preceded it.

The decodification process of a location is generally very complex. Nevertheless, the inherited wealth of iconic forms of a society is inevitably the background from which an individual’s perception of signs derives. For example, despite the fact that the casuistics of visual messages are mostly eradicated, a concave mark, which can recall a gesture of a hand, a nest, or a mother’s womb, is a sign in which we immediately read a sense of welcoming and receptivity. Thus, even without the expectation of a complete and critical study, the contents are transmitted from a historical and recent package of expressive signs in virtue of the immediacy with which the figural universe communicates. This extremely immediate form of reading determines an integral social role of architecture and imposes on the architect an evaluation of the universes of transmission in which his work is situated.

From this point of view, the planning of an architectonic object cannot disregard the fact that the object adds a narrative to the complex urban or natural text into which it is inserted. The significant signs of which it is composed are an expression of a content that is manifested in the whole of that location.

1.3 Legibility of the architectonic text

In particular, we can dismantle the legibility of each architectonic work into two co-present aspects. On one side, a part of the signs that make up the work can harmonise with it or make it disharmonious to the context in which it stands – whether they be volumetric configurations, topological relations, rhythms, scansions, proportions of parts, materials and textures of a shell’s skin. On the other hand, the poetic idea that subtends the creative process traditionally assigned to the planner is manifested.


2  Experimentations

2.1  Experimentations on single controlled phases

If used singularly, the digital instruments that converge to a dynamic simulation generally guarantee an excellent legibility of an idea through the forms generated. One can just think of the possibilities offered by a dynamic modelling software of which a planner can make use in the procedure for explicit manifestation of a chosen content: an initial conceptual intention (content) can be expressed with he help of instruments offered by the software that eludes the geometric rigidity of the forms, allowing a plastic and expressive modelling very similar to the sculptural approach. The choice of instruments used become, in such case, closely bound to the expressive objective pursued.

A very simple example are the space warps based on modifiers; deforming geometric space, they not only institute an immediate relation between their placement and position in the space of the object to which they are applied, but also they are a direct expression of the formal will of the planner.

In the following stated experiment, in the historical downtown area of the city, there is an associated space warp that bends space. A series of cubes move in the lot under the influence of attractive forces. In their movement each cube is deformed, taking on a form that is directly connected to the position assumed in space in respect to the historical downtown where the space warp is located. At the same time, the carried-out choice in regard to the type of space warp is reconducted by the planner’s will to define an architectonic form that reaches out explicitly to the historical downtown.

fig.1 – Snapshots of deformed cubes

In respect to the query of the research, these types of procedures seem to work well for single steps, even if in combinations.

In a second experiment, through a dynamic simulation with the use of particle flows, we analyse the visibility of the area surrounding it and the conformation of the terrain; on the basis of the different concentrations of particles, we identify two internal areas in the lot; we shape the urban directions and natural choices on the form of the areas and obtain three split forms. A dynamic simulation proposes the interaction of a series of cubes that move along the split ones; a third dynamic simulation deforms the obtained volumes in relation to the conformation of the facing slope.

It is a translation of traditional procedures operated by digital tools, induced by the semiotic interpretation of the urban text, but the generative process is still controlled for the single diagrammatic steps and does not consent the elaboration of a reacting form in its totality.

fig.2 - single diagrammatic steps of second experiment

2.2 Experimentations of contemporaneous interactions

In the last compositive process stated here we attempt to reach the unification of the procedure, the meaning, and the group of forms as a complex reacting organism.

Often complicating the processes and intensifying the relations between single digital instruments used in the formal definition, the elevated number of interactions tends to remove the formal result from the legibility of the initial intentions. To rectify this, despite making some phases contemporaneous, one must associate a defined objective to each of them.

1) The architectonic object is intended as an autopoietic organism. [10] Its internal function is interpreted on the basis of functional requirements that it must guarantee in virtue of its use’s destination (biomass teleheating station). A diagram, through proportional circular areas and their tangents, represents respectively the fundamental functional components and their necessity for mutual connection. In such a case, three general sectoral domains are highlighted, subdivided internally into specific establishments (managerial domains composed of different offices, technical domain of vain machines and area of treatment of wood to burn).

fig.3 – functional diagram

2) The context is interpreted on the basis of a historical and semiotic study of its signs and in relation to the project at hand, under the visual and functional profile. Each element extracted on the basis of these reflections is parameterized according to a proportional scale of positive or negative values and related ever so often to each functional element that makes up the project’s diagram. In this sense, for example, the historical downtown assumes a positive value in respect to the engine room to which we want it to relate visually; and a neutral value for the Silos, while the purifier has a negative value compared to the offices nearby where the workers would be disturbed by its proximity; and so forth. The objective consists in an influence between contextual elements and those of the specific and proportional project in respect to each of the analysed relations.

fig.4 – parameterized contest (3 of 9 combinations)

3) The project’s intuition comes from location, in which the big acute layers and the topological realisations of the flaky ancient rocks suggest crystalline forms, expression of a personality that seems to us intrinsic to the pre-alpine landscape, inducing us to hypothesise a project involving acute protrusions and tensions.

From the operational point-of-view:

1) The respect for the functional obligations is guaranteed by a skeleton regulated by Inverted Cinematics. This sets rigid obligations that correspond to the necessity of functional tangency. Determining the position of the connecting-rods based on the distances and cyclical disposition of the functions and by conceiving the entire skeleton on the functional diagram, the mutual position of the rods, their length, the freedom to rotate corresponding hinge joints and the general disposition, all translate expressed needs from the structural diagrammatic rules, allowing to obtain a structure capable of deforming itself still guaranteeing the functioning of the system.

fig.5 – skeleton (Inverted Cinematics)

2) The context translates to a field of attractive and repulsive forces, of diverse intensities on the basis of the parameterisation carried out, making each element of the context an attractor or buffer in regard to each single part of the project.

3) The project idea is associated to the choice of geometric entities on the simulation scene. One chooses to operate with prismatic elements, excluding geometrical nurbs and blobs that lead to fluid forms, extremely seductive in their abstractness, but strongly disharmonious with personal suggestions.

A dynamic simulation makes the system of forces interact with each part of the functional diagram. Each function, generically represented by a small sphere, reaches a point of equilibrium around which the motion generated by dynamic simulation becomes cyclical. At such point, it is associable to the ideal position of each function in relation to the significant points of the surrounding places in relation to it.

Corresponding each hinge of the skeleton to a sphere, the system is deformed by the imposed obligations.

fig.6 – dynamic simulation

So, we obtain a system that condenses a complex group of project relations, overcoming the separation of the single steps previously analysed. Different possible formal expressions are associable to this.

From the guidance of point 2 (estimating the subject element to the evolution of the poetic idea that architecture intends to express) we clothe the bone structure with a prismatic skin. The deformation leads to the final compositive conformation.

fig.7 – deformation of prismatic skin and final compositive conformation


Besides the will of the author and the interpretation that he proposes of the context, the meaning of the generated signs is focalised in relation to the creative contribution recognised of the informatic medium. The co-presence of the three contributions do not seem to us that it could degrade the digital elaboration of unexpected forms. These elaborate a geometry evolving with an infinite amount of freedom, despite remaining within legible contextual relations and manifesting an explicit expressive will of the author. The procedure is like a synthesis of the three contributions.



[1] A.Mognato, M.Turrin, Processi compositivi digitali. Centrale di teleriscaldamento a biomassa – Feltre. MSc Thesys, University IUAV of Venice, Department of Architectural Design (DPA), A.A. 2002-2003

[3] cfr Peter Zellner, Hybrid Space. New Forms in Digital Architecture, Thames & Hudson, Londra, 1999 – pp.8-16.

[4] Caroline Boss, Ben Van Berkel,  Un studio, Move, Un Studio Goose Press, 1999

[5] cfr Maurice Nio & Lars Spuybroek, De Strategie van de Vorm, de Architect, special issue 57, 11/94

[6] Birger Sevaldson, Dynamic Generative Diagrams, Essay for eCAADe Weimar 2000

[7] cfr Greg Lynn, Animate Form, Princeton Architectural Press, 1999 New York

[8] Luciano Testa, Urbano Vs non Urbano: città estetica o estetica della città? in Vittorio Spigai, L’architettura della non città. Ridisegnare le periferie. Città Studi Edizioni, Milano, 1995

[9] U.Eco, Trattato di semiotica generale, Bompiani, Milano, 1975

[10] Humberto R.Maturana, Francisco J.Varela, Autopoiesi e cognizione. La realizzazione del vivente. Marsilio Editore, Venezia, 1985.